The Films of 2016: Loving

Jeff Nichols’ Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), the interracial couple whose criminalization led to the overturning of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1967.  The film does its best to avoid the trappings of a courtroom drama, and it mostly succeeds (it helps that the Lovings opted not to attend the Supreme Court hearing that ended up ruling in their favor—though even that isn’t enough to spare us a montage sequence in which highlights from the court proceedings are intercut with shots of the couple going about their business at home).  Nichols is an Indiewood director whose films toe the line between convention and originality, and Loving toes that line to maddening effect; the film’s flickers of greatness often get smothered by too much good taste.

It’s an exceptionally restrained film, something that works both to its advantage and its detriment.  Nichols and his actors downplay the emotions of the Lovings’ story as if in an attempt to avoid the clichés of melodrama, but in doing so they risk making the Lovings dull: stoic and noble objects of suffering.  Nichols seals the Lovings off behind a wall of privacy that always keeps us at a distance from them.  We rarely see them interacting with each other alone.  A long-distance shot of them quietly entering their bedroom and shutting the door is representative of the way in which the film denies us access to the more intimate details of their marriage—out of respect, presumably, but at the expense of our involvement in their story.  Less is more, it seems, until it’s not enough. 

In some ways the best thing about the film is the opening scene, which is almost shocking in its directness.  After the title, a hard cut to a close-up of Mildred’s face bathed in shadow as she and Richard sit on the front porch of her family’s house, crickets chirping.  Pause.  “I’m pregnant,” she announces in a soft, high, frightened voice.  Long pause.  Richard chuckles.  Then he says, “Good.  That’s good.”  They turn to gaze at each other in wonderment, fear…and love.  End scene.  It’s the best scene Sam Shepard (a collaborator on Nichols’ Mud) never wrote.  The film is most affecting when it dwells on Negga and Edgerton’s faces, both of which are mesmerizing (she has the big, round eyes of a wary cat; he has a downturned mouth that looks like it was carved with a awl).  In a film of few words, their performances are impressively physical.  And yet the film as a whole, well made though may be, is much less interesting than Nichols’ rougher-around-the-edges Take Shelter (2011).  In its way, that film—another portrait of a marriage tested by crisis—has more to say about loving than Loving does.

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