Monday, November 21, 2016

A Reel Review: LOVING

In the past few years, no other filmmaker has captured rural America like writer/director Jeff Nichols. From the backwater towns of Mississippi to the flatlands of Ohio, he has become a storyteller for the country-folk, specifically; the ones who face extraordinary obstacles. He is a voice for the little people, which makes his newest film, LOVING, the story of the Supreme Court case which would end laws prohibiting interracial marriage, right in his wheelhouse.

In Virginia 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), an interracial couple, are arrested for breaking the state’s laws prohibiting interracial marriage and are forced to leave their home state. After raising a family, they yearn to return home, and enlist the help of ACLU lawyers (Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) to reverse their conviction.

The case of Loving v. Virginia would be a landmark in American history, as the (spoiler) eventual decision by the Supreme Court would allow couples of mixed race to marry…and the case would be used as a precedent in modern times when the issue of gay marriage comes to be argued. LOVING guides us through the somewhat complex road that Richard and Mildred must journey; from their early courtship, to their wedding day, to the frightening intrusion when police break down their bedroom door. The story is ripe to turn into a legal procedural, with each step of the legal process acting as a plot point.

But the steady hand of Jeff Nichols has no interest in turning LOVING into a dry legal drama. Instead, he focuses the film’s attention on the Lovings; their family life, their daily routines, and their interactions with each other, friends, and extended family. Nichols realizes that the Lovings were the quiet type; never wanting to seek unnecessary attention or to bothered. With this in mind, the legal proceedings nearly fade into the background of the story, leaving us with Richard and Mildred and their family and their day-to-day struggle with being accepted. With such large implications hanging over the story, the special care and attention given to the main characters turns LOVING into a special film to take in.

Nichols captures the landscape and the living conditions of 1950’s Virginia perfectly. His perfectly framed shots and patient hand in showing the daily routines creates an atmosphere so thick we could practically swat the skeeters away from our sweaty necks. He paints the Lovings as an intimate and very human couple, and it’s impossible to not see ourselves in them. David Wingo’s score is beautiful and adds to the atmosphere.

Acting is superb. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga have a tremendous, natural chemistry with each other, and it’s not hard at all to buy them as a couple. Edgerton’s character is a down-home type who usually has his head down and mumbles a bit, and the scene where he has to plead guilty in open court is heartbreaking as he perfectly portrays a broken man. Ruth Negga is as effective as she is beautiful; conveying so much emotion in a single glance. The great Michael Shannon drops in as a Life Magazine photographer and lightens the mood, and Marton Csokas, as an overzealous police chief, turns in a great role as the villain of the film.

The true brilliance behind LOVING is just how understated everything is. Where other filmmakers would go for big, overdramatic speeches with tears flowing to prove a point, Nichols instead goes for little moments which amazingly carry much more weight. It works because it’s the type of natural, real-world reactions that the common person would have when going up against great odds. In fact, the film is so understated and subtle, that it isn’t until the perfectly-framed final shot where the true weight and emotion of the story finally sinks in, and closes out LOVING with a satisfying, tear-inducing exclamation-point. Jeff Nichols has quietly put together a very relevant film, as it speaks towards how much progress we’ve made, and how much more needs to happen. It’s a film for us all, and those are the best kind.


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