There is much to respect and admire about what Jeff Nichols has done with Loving. However its incredibly restrained tactics and slow as molasses narrative kept it at a bit of an arms length for me emotionally. But Nicols’ methodology is no mistake. Loving purposefully emulates its subjects – Richard and Mildred Loving, both of whom are played to quiet perfection by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga – an interracial couple who accidentally change the course of post-Jim Crow American history when they become embroiled in a critical constitutional law case.
Just as Richard Loving wants little to no involvement in the various judicial procedures that are so violently dictating his life so too is Nichols’ film non-interventionist to its core. It does not lean on cheap narrative inventions. It tells its truth sans garish ornaments. The adaptation, also written by Nichols based on actual events that occurred between 1958 and 1967, is pure. It does not dress up events, which gives Loving a down-to-earth, real feeling. The stripped-back, real life qualities that make Loving seem so real though also make it kind of a slog to get through. That is, it’s as organic as a five dollar apple but similarly leaves you questioning its worth.
Nichols begins inauspiciously and without introduction, the no-frills beginning to a no-frills movie. The admirable launch sees the rotten-toothed Richard, an introverted day laborer slash mechanic by night, cozying up to lover Mildred. Their chemistry is potent if, like most of Loving, extremely restrained. When Richard proposes to an already impregnated Mildred, their joy is palpable. Its toothy. Genuine. Heart-rending. Warmth emanates from the screen.
When the pair find themselves arrested under obtuse anti-miscegenation laws in their home state of Virginia, one of the many still standing bastions of good ol’ American racism, that joy turns to fear. And anguish. There is something so spine-shakingly repulsive about the human impulse to divide and Nicols taps into that recurring human tendency almost nonchalantly. Growing up in Arkansas, in the belly of a red state, could not have hurt.
In moments where townsfolk look upon Richard and Mildred, hate barely lassoed in their eyes, or local police bully, accost and target this poor couple who want nothing more than to be left in peace, there is alarming parallels to our nation that just voted to divide itself along racial, religious and gender lines. That the events that occur in Loving hold a mirror up to those occurring today is both shocking and disheartening. But it also provides flashes of hope. Hope that love can prevail in impossible circumstances. Hope that our government can correct itself if properly prodded. Hope in hope itself.
The performers sell the grief that comes to complicate their marriage with the self-control of seasoned actors. Gone are the flailing arms and loosened tears, replaced by muted resiliency and downtrodden acceptance of an ethnically torn America. As Richard retreats into himself, becoming almost a forced hermit made to live out his days in head-hung isolation, Mildred finds the courage to reach out to those who may be in a position to aid her. This eventually leads her to Nick Kroll‘s jejune lawyer Bernie Cohen.
Kroll seemed an odd choice to co-star in a historical biopic and that mismatch translates to the screen. He just doesn’t have a ton to offer. Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon on the other hand drifts in and out of the picture making a soft splash as he does so. He ultimately has little impact on the narrative though and seems like more “Michael Shannon needs a role in this” fluff than anything of great effect. As Mildred, Ruth Negga’s offering is breakout worthy however. She embodies the strength, stubbornness and resilience that defines Mildred and sells it ably. Negga has cropped up in small Hollywood roles – including in Duncan Jones’ reviled Warcraft – and has seen a small uptick in popularity from her role on AMC’s cultish Preacher but this is sure to catapult her into some form of legitimate stardom. And deservingly so. Edgerton is just about as good, but this is clearly Negga’s show.
For all the victories of Loving – all the tender, true moments and impressive, discreet thespian skill – it inspires one too many watch checks. Scenes drag on into pensive infinity. Act structure crumbles under the relative dearth of material to translate and one year crawls by at a time. In essence, the lack of showy moments is both a gift and a curse for Loving. It allows it to maintains credibility and authenticity at the cost of raw entertainment. Even establishing shots seem twice as long as they should be. Underlying the tedium there is poetry; a message that is somehow as important now as it was in the racially-charged 1960s and that is a message of love. And to quote the band that defined that era, love – it may seem – is all you need. Let us hope that is the case.
CONCLUSION: Jeff Nichols’ shows an abundance of restraint translating the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple jailed for marrying. Though marked by great performances and admirable in avoiding the pratfalls of showy Oscar-leaning dramas, ‘Loving’ admittedly moves at a snail’s pace and may shake the interest of many viewers along the way for doing so.