Loving (2016) Film Review

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Directed and Written by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Jon Bass, Michael Shannon, Martin Csokas, Bill Camp
Produced by: Nancy Buirski, Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, Sarah Green, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub
Cinematography by: Adam Stone
Music by: David Wingo
Editing by: Julie Monroe

*****

I know you don’t care much, but I’m currently dealing with a conundrum.

I saw a movie at the Austin Film Festival called Loving that I admired for its craft and performances but did not altogether enjoy. The movie is Jeff Nichols’s fifth after four excellent films in a row: Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, and earlier this year, Midnight Special. In each work until his most recent, Nichols has proved to be a writer/director (he is also a producer of such beautiful work as Kat Candler’s Hellion) with few peers as gifted as he is at storytelling. Take Shelter remains one of the uncontested great American films of the decade five years after its release, a haunting, possibly science-fictitious depiction of mental illness and the way Southerners treat the “other” in their midst. Then Midnight Special took Nichols’s writing to Spielberg levels, and not simply because of its narrative parallels to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The visual achievement is there entirely, but Nichols plumbs an emotional depth that I don’t remember seeing in a sci-fi movie since District 9. It solidified, I think, the filmmaker’s entry into the national canon.

So here is that conundrum: while Loving is certainly beautiful, thanks in large part to the work of Nichols’s stalwart cinematographer Adam Stone, and acted to the nines by Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Bill Camp, and Michael Shannon, I left the screening dissatisfied by its pacing and the unpleasant taste of formula that accompanies the film’s outcome. Other performances hit certain jarring, discontinuous notes. David Wingo’s music – typically amongst the best composing being done in American films like Prince Avalanche and All the Real Girls – is almost redundantly epic, telling us where and when to feel.

The tale told in the script should be far from banal: it’s about Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple who took their fight to be legally married (successfully) to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is the kind of movie that, for many a professional film critic around the country, begs to be put on Top 10 lists and awards prognostications. Furthermore, as someone who respects Jeff Nichols so strongly as a filmmaker, I want to appreciate this project and the historically integral social issues brought to the fore in it. But I found Loving unfortunately mundane.

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Let me make one thing straight – the filmmakers hit many buttons with elegance and ease. As Richard and Mildred, Edgerton and Negga play true-blue lovers in 1958 Virginia, when marriage and miscegenation between Caucasian Americans and Americans of color was illegal. Richard brings Mildred to Washington D.C. to be married anyway, resulting in a decade of traumatic run-ins with local police (represented here by a drawling Martin Csokas), bigoted judges (like David Jensen, who “just needed to see one more time” in Midnight Special) and lackluster lawyers (character-actor genius Bill Camp.) Eventually, Negga’s Mildred – the film’s beating heart, rendered heartwrenchingly beloved and lovable by Negga – gets word of her troubles to two dogged lawyers at the ACLU.

From here we begin to see cracks in the veneer of this seemingly acclaim-bound movie. One of the lawyers, Bernie Cohen, is aggressively, stereotypically Jewish, and Nick Kroll plays him in an inappropriate bit of casting as a sweet-talking con-artist type torn between his fifteen minutes of fame and real care for the Lovings. Kroll is a quite good actor, whose My Blind Brother impressed me at this year’s SXSW Film Festival (I hear he is also splendid in Joshy), but Nichols and his editor, Julie Monroe, can’t decide how to use him. Is Bernie a comic relief character, fudging his law degree and his holding of a law office a la DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can? Or is he one in a pair of brilliant experts, with his counterpart played by Jon Bass, who heroically defended the Lovings in their case against the State of Virginia?

The most unconvincing scene comes when this second scenario becomes the clear aim of the filmmakers. Stone shoots Bass and Kroll with two spotless medium-close-ups, the gentlemen each facing the Supreme Court justices in magnificent dress and Pomaded hair. They are as self-serious as these “big moments” get in independent drama; and because we’ve seen Cohen and his interactions with Richard Loving – comically disagreeable, verging on the hostile – we expect a smirk. It never happens, but both Kroll and Bass are by this time too far gone for their emotions to be taken at face value.

This scene takes place at the film’s climax as the Supreme Court deliberates the Loving family’s right to marriage. Since it does not work well, the impact of the historic decision to legalize their vows is greatly reduced, again despite fantastic acting from Edgerton and Negga. As a document of momentous Civil Rights victories and the improvement of our nation as a whole, Loving is already being historicized as a perfectly-timed and daring movie. It will inevitably take the place in the discourse of what many were hoping would be a more agential and powerful rendering of American evils: Birth of a Nation, now reviled en masse (and not very good, to boot.)

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Now that the Austin Film Festival has concluded, and all my reviews for the Austin Chronicle have been submitted, I find myself clinging to the pleasures in Loving. When Michael Shannon appears as a photographer for a prominent magazine, the audience cheers and whoops at the sight of this tremendous actor (and as always, throughout his 5-film collaboration with Nichols, he is the best part of Loving.) Then there is the immaculate production design, costuming, and makeup, so important here and so beautifully executed on all counts. The fact, for example, that Mildred wears dark red and purple lipstick, and keeps her hair classically poofed and curled, while her sister’s hair is frizzier and looser, sends immediate signals about why Mildred might have ventured into a groundbreaking Supreme Court case. These small, perfect details remind me that a crew of master filmmakers, including the producers Sarah Green, Colin Firth, and Ged Doherty, tried their very hardest on behalf of an important historical subject.

Nonetheless, and simply put, Loving does not live up to these filmmakers’ standards of storytelling, nor does it accomplish emotionally the ambitious goals inherent to such a political cinematic subject. The baggage holding this film down by comparison with Take Shelter or, say, The Color Purple is that of history, and I willfully acknowledge that my concept of canonical histories is much different than this film’s target audience. But that doesn’t make the picture any more satisfactory or enjoyable.

*****

Editor’s Note: This review was made possible by Austin Chronicle and the Austin Film Festival. Our thanks to both organizations, as always.

*****

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