LOVING (Movie Review)

**** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic elements involving racism)
Released: November 4, 2016 limited; November 23 wide
Runtime: 123 minutes
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Terri Abney, Alano Miller, Sharon Blackwood, Michael Shannon

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Ranked #10 on My Top 10 List For 2016

For a movie that goes out of its way to not be emotionally manipulative, it speaks volumes that in its final moments I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, and tears welling up in my eyes.

Loving is based on the true story of an interracial couple in the late 1950s American South. Under Jim Crow laws, they were sentenced to prison for co-habitating as man and wife, despite having been legally married in Washington D.C. The movie derives its title from their last name, Richard and Mildred Loving. It’s the story of their legal battle, but also their romance.

Director Jeff Nichols strikes an understated tone from the opening scene. It’s imbued with such simple but sincere poignancy that, by the end of the first minute, our hearts feel deeply for these two star-crossed innocents.

Nichols is an indie filmmaker known primarily for pulpier but character-rich genre endeavors that have ranged from Southern Gothic (Matthew McConaughey’s Mud) to Sci-Fi (Midnight Special from Spring 2016). Loving is more reserved and tender, finding its power in intimate moments, never grand ones.

It recalls John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath in its pastoral portrait of simple unassuming common folk (with painterly frames of Americana to match, by cinematographer Adam Stone). The Lovings and their extended families are Joads for the Civil Rights Era; people of the earth, with some driven from their home, who live by a quiet nobility.

Indeed, this is the kind of issue-oriented movie that Hollywood loves to tell (and award) but far from how it traditionally tells it. Loving eschews heightened agitprop melodrama. In its place is an empathetic, mournful atmosphere; raw but not sensationalized, hopeless and grieving. The polar opposite of Mississippi Burning, it’s more like Virginia Lamenting.

Contrived scenes of illustrious speeches or dramatic showdowns are anathema to Nichols’ sensibility, which is hewn to a more delicate, difficult realism. No instances of Richard or Mildred giving racists a well-articulated piece of their minds; no cinematic versions of oratory mic drops. Courtroom scenes are procedural (though still tense), not theatrical. You won’t find idealized scripted catharsis here, no soaring triumphant fanfares. These are real people, vulnerable people, trying to survive an oppressive tyranny.

Loving, rather, is told through the quiet, anxious moments that play between the big Oscar-bait scenes in other movies, and land on the cutting room floor (if they were ever written or filmed to begin with). It’s more honest and truthful about how victims of bigotry feel when they’re threatened, attacked, and disempowered, particularly when the full force of the law (and corrupt enforcers) are against them. It shows the practical decisions that victims are required to make, which are tragic and tear families apart, not the organized protests.

But then, eventually, it’s about beautiful gestures of love, courage, grace, and hope. They come in small glimmers, not bold strokes. A person is not given his or her voice from behind a microphone, pulpit, or public lectern; it’s granted unexpectedly through phone calls in the middle of a normal day. At moments when the oppressed have long since resigned themselves to the fact that the whole world is against them, and against what’s right…but then maybe it’s not.

Joel Edgerton and (relative) unknown Ruth Negga give heartbreaking performances that are as humbly metered as Nichols’ filmmaking. Edgerton, an Aussie, continues to be the most underappreciated actor working today, a chameleon of Streep-like proportions. From the Boston bureaus in Black Mass to the rural south of Midnight Special and now this, Edgerton not only embodies the voice, attitudes, and psychology of people born and raised in those regions, he portrays them on instinctive levels. Negga, an Irish-Ethiopian, is equally authentic, and a true revelation of talent. There may be a handful of lead performances this year that match Edgerton and Negga, but you won’t see better ones.

You could say that, as a filmmaker, Jeff Nichols resists the temptation to go for those bigger awards-clip moments. My hunch is that such an assumption would be a grave misreading of where Nichols, and his film, is coming from. He’s not tempted in the least to go there. Instead, he’s drawn to the exact opposite; to where real life is found, wrestled with, and confronted, not in our comforting dramatizations.

It’s not that the traditional approach is always bad; Selma is a recent example of when it’s powerfully rendered. But even when the victories are considered, we still must grieve over what was stolen and can never be given back. Loving is about the people who weren’t Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it’s a landmark elegy to them.

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