Loving is a lesser Jeff Nichols film, but it is still among the best features to reach wide release this year. Spanning 10 of the most turbulent years in our country’s existence, the film captures the power and strength of love in a way that could not be more timely. I just wish it were a tad more thrilling to watch unfold.
Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) were two blue collar, hard-working individuals who fell in love during a time in this country’s history when interracial marriages were considered taboo. They traveled to the nation’s capitol in order to be wed, but upon returning home to Virginia they were met with judgment and handcuffs. The couple agreed to leave the state for no less than 25 years in an attempt to keep one another out of prison, but after some time away they were discovered by the ACLU, who soon took it upon themselves to help the couple fight for their right to love whomever they choose.
The cultural relevance of a story like that found in Loving is fairly obvious. The United States has not been this divided over race and equality since the Loving family were fighting for their right to be together, and Nichols manages to make the connection clear without ever being too on the nose in his approach. He accomplished this by staying true to the spirit of the Lovings, who clung tight to hope in the face of adversity. Richard and Mildred were not the fighting type. They were simply two people who loved each other and could not understand how their relationship could cause harm to others, and had the ACLU not found their case there is a chance they would have lived out their 25-year ban from Virginia in silence.
While watching Loving I found it impossible to resist the urge to quietly clench my fist and grit my teeth at what I witnessed unfolding on screen. The Lovings were not aiming to make trouble when they decided to get married, and throughout the decade of their life captured in this film they did everything in their power to stay out of the public eye. The outside world came to the Lovings’ front door to tell them they were wrong, and when that wasn’t enough to make them betray their hearts the world took further action. The world pushed and pushed this couple, but they did not let go of the bond that kept them tethered to one another and the children they shared. They took the blows of the world and resisted the urge to deliver strikes of their own in return. They never wanted a war, but somehow, through no fault of their own, they found themselves on the front line of a battle about things much bigger than themselvelves.
The script for Loving follows Nichols’ other 2016 feature, Midnight Special, as something of an exercise in minimalist storytelling. Though the film covers a full 10 years, there are no time stamps offered to tell you where you are in time. The dialogue is also kept at a minimum, with Richard Loving choosing to grunt or gesture with the slightest of nods whenever engaged in conversation. The actions and emotions are left to speak for themselves, and thankfully for Nichols he has an all-star cast of indie notables at his disposal. Edgerton and Negga being the brightest example of this, conveying a palpable amount of romantic chemistry throughout the film, but the supporting cast also does not disappoint. Michael Shannon is as good as ever in a bit role as a photographer from Life Magazine, and comedian Nick Kroll makes a strong case for his future as a dramatic actor by portraying the headstrong attorney who helps the couple fight for what is right.
As was the case with Midnight Special, the restraint shown in the script ultimately makes a impact on the pacing of the story. While this approach helped to add mystery in other films it has an opposite, entertainment-draining effect here. The film focuses fiercely on the connection between the Lovings throughout their battle, but most of the heavy lifting in their fight was accomplished by other people. Those actions, while seen in passing, are never given the space they need to help the film feel as urgent or important as it should. As such, Loving falls into that category of films that will no doubt win critical acclaim, but may have trouble making the majority of moviegoers give a damn, and considering everyone who came together to make this project a reality, that is quite a letdown.