Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Loving (2016) dir. Jeff Nichols

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Oscar season is upon us! I mean, sort of.

The statuettes themselves won’t be handed out for another several months, but between now and Christmas the studios will unleash the lion’s share of films they’ve deemed, in their infinite wisdom (or cynicism), the likeliest to receive them, or at least the most deserving. It’s a time-honored, self-perpetuating practice – back-loading the year with “quality” films, usually dramas – and largely predicated, no doubt, on the well-documented shortness of the average Academy member’s memory.

The opening weeks of this year’s Oscar-bait bonanza have given notice of a couple of things: first, that Hollywood is determined to assert its right-thinking bona fides after the Great Diversity Drought at 2016’s awards show; and second, that a new(ish) generation of auteurs (Barry Jenkins, say, and Kenneth Lonergan) – with little in common save an association with indie earnestness and non-record-breaking box office – bids fair to ascend to establishment status, covetable as ever for its ample budgets and many-pronged marketing machinery.

Director Jeff Nichols is in a good position to make the leap – and hasn’t been shy about wanting to make it. Over the course of an almost decade-long career, encompassing four feature films, Nichols has been hailed for telling fraught, sympathetic, fable-tinged tales set in the American “heartland.” While they range from laconic, kitchen-sink realism (Shotgun Stories, his 2007 debut) to Spielbergian (but no less laconic) science fantasy (Midnight Special, released earlier this year to little fanfare), they occupy a shared time – our own – and evince the same lightly worn sensibility: one of grievance, and of disorientation, both of them stoically borne until tragically stirred up, among struggling Middle American white folks.

But Loving, Nichols’ latest film, inspired by a documentary about Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that abolished America’s miscegenation laws in 1967, is something else altogether.

Just a few days into wide release at the time of writing, the movie’s Oscar prospects stand to benefit from its earnest, heartfelt engagement with an aspect of America’s troubled racial history – the legal status of interracial marriages – that readily lends itself, thanks to the true story upon which the film is based, to a narrative of emotional and moral uplift. When its extraordinary, spellbinding central performances are factored in, Loving is all but certain to garner at least one nomination – a Best Actress nod for Ruth Negga, who lights up the screen just as Mildred Loving must have lit up the world – and could well earn several more.

Joel Edgerton also impresses as Mildred’s husband Richard, who sets a new, unlikely-to-be-outstripped standard for Nicholsian taciturnity. Richard’s apparent commitment to restricting himself to the barest minimum of spoken communication reflects the whole production’s more general economy of means – this is a film that trusts its story’s inherent tension, buttressed by its own careful, unflashy construction (one razzle-dazzlingly edited urban disaster scene aside), to keep viewers’ attention from wandering.

For the most part this strategy works. All the same, Richard’s opacity is so extreme that you may find yourself wondering not only whether we know him at all, but what kind of relationship his wife and children could possibly have with a man so remote. These caveats are never completely cleared away, but the few scenes in which Richard loosens up some – laughing and lounging on the couch with Mildred, for example, while The Andy Griffith Show plays on their tiny TV and a photographer from life (Nichols perennial Michael Shannon) snaps pics – give us a glimpse into a richer, roomier character.

Saying much more about Loving seems unnecessary. In many ways it is a far more conventional film than any of Nichols’ earlier efforts. His reasons for that may be, at least in part, rooted in his hopes for his career, but we can hardly begrudge him that. Appreciated on its own terms, as a fairly simple story about two people who changed the world by stubbornly refusing to cede ground they felt was rightfully theirs – the ground of their marriage, yes, but also of their families, of the commonwealth of Virginia, and of the parcel of land Richard bought just before he and his wife were first arrested, on which he hoped to build their home – Loving is an (almost) unqualified success. Let the statuettes fall where they may.

Loving
2016
dir. Jeff Nichols
123 min.

Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema and Coolidge Corner Theatre

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