Jeff Nichols directs films with the steadiness and dexterity of a great novelist. Feeling little pressure to rely on expository dialogue or to drive the action forward without cause, Nichols creates his immersive worlds through his ability to craft organic relationships and drown the films and their viewers in atmosphere. In Take Shelter there was the sense of impending doom. Mud capture the Mark Twain essence of the wandering spirit while Midnight Special tapped into the old school, science fiction vibe as we were asked to reckon with the possibilities of “others” and the power of family. Loving, perhaps Nichols’s most confidently and lushly shot film doesn’t reach the moments of his other 2016 release but, like a good book, it arrives well worn, acutely depicted and hooks its viewers so entirely in its quiet moments that once the emotional climaxes come we’re shocked by our responses. Loving is a slow burn that’s contents to experience solitude, spirituality and nature without ever relenting on the human spirit.
Based on true events, Loving tells the story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving, an interracial couple in 1950’s Virginia where their marriage was still a criminal offense. We follow the couple over nearly a decade as they quietly wage their personal battle over an unjust legislation that would go on to change not only their lives, but many others. Despite a lack of intention to become them, the Loving couple were regarded as icons of the time.
Nichols depicts his main couple as if his mission were to replace the screens of a movie theater or television with the four sides of picture frame. Every image lies inside a box, both creating a timeless imagery while simultaneously representing the feeling of being imprisoned in their own lives. This is especially true when the story takes them to DC and despite their lives growing larger in terms of having children and finding jobs, their space of living is shrinking as their world becomes increasingly internalized. Theirs is a world where their expectations have to be minimized, their beliefs kept quiet and their ambitions squashed down. When they’re given an opportunity to get their own lives back and to reclaim the dream they’d once shared together, they take it. Instantly the camera focus shifts, giving more light to their everyday lives. One scene in particular as they stand outside a new home with fields of grass behind them shows them totally and unabashedly free.
The film is gorgeous to look at but would be a lesser one if not for the leading performances. Negga will hopefully reach break out status with this and her charmingly off the rails performance as Tulip in AMC’s Preacher. As Mildred she’s quiet and docile but steely in nature and more emotionally refined than her husband whose confidence always seems to be put upon. Negga instills Mildred with a reliable warmth and heart as she is always the driving force of her and her families life as well as the narrative itself.
Edgerton is a near revelation, playing a character much different then those he typically embodies. Richard is a quiet, internal man whose emotional complexity is much greater than his stoicism might suggest and its Edgerton’s ability to convey the layers of emotional vulnerability that Richard experiences that makes him such a marvel to watch play out. Some of the greatest moments of joy and moments of heartbreak come when we’re allowed to peak beyond his calm facade.
Together their chemistry is comfortable and effortless, allowing the audience to believe in their union without having to ever force it upon us with dialogue or cheapened moments of love. Instead it’s their easy camaraderie and team efforts that display the unbreakable tenacity of their love.
Like any good novel there aren’t easy answers to their story and with a happy ending came a caveat but the wonder is in the locations, the love found in the honesty between the couple, and the cinematic magic in how it all comes together to be both a spiritual romance and rousing but quiet call to action against injustices of the days of the film and now. There’s a timeless energy to Nichol’s latest which makes it all the more important to see today.
Loving is out in theaters now.