MOVIE REVIEW: Loving

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“LOVING”-- 5 STARS

With a minimalist style and unadorned simplicity to reflect on racial intolerance, Jeff Nichols crafts “Loving” as a reminiscence of history without the histrionics.  Devoid of soapboxes, speechifying, and manufactured swells of forced emotion seen in far too many historical dramas, “Loving” cuts a different cloth, trading in Hollywood glamor for blue collar truthfulness.  Nichols brilliantly lets the honesty and grace of Richard and Mildred Loving stand on their own without an unnecessary pedestal.  Cite this film as proof that “tell it like it is” does not require bombastic noise and volume.

“Loving” is set in unincorporated Caroline County, Virginia where the sounds of the South harken a unique auditory setting.  Opening in a post-”Rebel Without a Cause” late 1950s to the throttles of country drag races, we still hear the ever-present crickets and gravel roads blended with the domestic cues of clinking utensils on dinner plates and the unmistakable cries of screen door springs.  Meshed further within those sounds and down home music, are the grunts and affirmations of rural small talk barbed with the dismissive slurs of “boy” to open and close many sentences, reminding us that we are still in a different place.

What you don’t hear, but frankly see, are the silent forms of communication and body language being projected.  When the Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) is out and about with his arm around his girl, Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga of AMC’s “Preacher”), a biracial woman of African-American and Native American race, the gazes, gawks, and disgusted stares can be observed and felt.  Heart-set on being together and starting a family, Richard and Mildred drove to Washington, D.C. in June of 1958 to get legally married, evading the Virginia state statutes forbidding unions between white and non-whites.

Returning home, the local arm of the law (embodied by professional movie villain Martin Csokas), armed with an antiquated sense of dignity, is tipped off to this development and the couple is arrested in the middle of the night.  Richard and Mildred are urged by their local attorney (Bill Camp) to plead guilty of miscegenation and plea bargain to leave Virginia for a period of 25 years to avoid jail time.  Bound by that decision, they move to the District of Columbia and raise three children in the city while Richard commutes back to Caroline County for his work as a bricklayer.

Several years later, Mildred is homesick for her country roots and is moved by the active Civil Rights Movement.  A letter she writes to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy is discovered and championed by ACLU lawyers Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll, playing way, way, way against his Bobby Bottleservice type) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass).  The organization aims to promote public responses to the Lovings’ story through media attention and a Grey Villet (Nichols good luck charm Michael Shannon) photography piece in LIFE magazine.  Their aim is to take their case of lawful marriage all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

You might read that plot description and see the exact places where cinematic tropes plug in from similar films of racial history or domestic romance.  You might envision bold actors like Joel Edgerton or Michael Shannon having tailor-made, Oscar bait stump speeches or boiling brawls fisticuffs with racist opponents.  You might plan for the one moment where Ruth Negga’s proud woman rises from silence to shout down her oppressors, or you might picture all of the dramatic build-up of the film coming to a head in a jubilant courtroom victory scene circled by shouting protesters on both sides.  

That is what you expect because you’ve seen too many of those historical films with frank and cloying melodrama, artificial conflict, and steep dramatic license.  Simply put, look elsewhere because none of those packaged moments you think are coming arrive in “Loving.”  Not a single moment is overplayed, over-tuned, or overacted, and the film could not be more the better for that quality.

Understated and serene beyond measure, “Loving” conveys all of the powerful emotions and dramatic heft of those louder films without overwrought theatrics.  Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton capture hearts through unflinching marital devotion.  Repeated reaches for a held hand or little moments of snuggling closeness without witnesses seen here say more than the most swirling and passionate embraces where the orchestra blows the curtains back in your theater.  Edgerton and Negga achieve remarkable quiet strength through unending modesty moment after moment in “Loving,” in two of the finest performances of the year.

Properly diverging from the tension and dizzying wonderment of his other 2016 film “Midnight Special,” Jeff Nichols composed a richly-hewn film of eloquent power presented in absolute spareness.  Like the performances, the genuinely sweet and serene creative elements never drown out the narrative power, from David Wingo’s slight musical score to Adam Stone’s unfiltered camera.  The filmmaking steps back and bears witness to the plain and honest details of ordinary people unchanged when thrust into a national platform.  With that keen direction in mind, the investment becomes more moving and the timely and topical parallels to marriage equality still embattled today become more organic and poignant at the same time.

LESSON #1: THE MISNOMER USE OF THE ADMONISHMENT “YOU KNOW BETTER”-- Spun in the drawl of the Southern vernacular used in the film, the phrase of “you know better” is dealt to Richard Loving often in the film under the incorrect expectation of conformity to the majority culture or upbringing present in community and among his race.  That expectation is blind and patronizing when coming from racist and bigoted sources.

LESSON #2: THE TRAIT OF TOGETHERNESS IN MARRIAGE-- One cardinal aspect required in a marriage is unified front.  As the vows say “for better or worse,” spouses need to support the causes and beliefs of their partners, even in peril.  Mildred plays the mouthpiece role in this struggle more than Richard’s simpleton, but never once to either waver or question their commitment.  In an even better cinematic example to viewers, neither do their extended family members.  You won’t find the disapproving parents or siblings in this racially-charged situation.

LESSON #3: WHERE IS THE DANGER IN TWO PEOPLE THAT LOVE EACH OTHER BEING MARRIED?-- Traits and cardinal aspects aside, the overbearing societal rules hovering over the right and privilege of marriage cloud the picture.  Unfair prejudices have tried to govern the love that constitutes and creates those unions.  When you look at a brief list of the civil benefits of marriage allowed by the law, one should ask where is the harm in granting those items to two people regardless of race or other orientation, especially if they love each other and wish to raise a family.  Those that oppress such forget that route of the American Dream.  Progress has been made in the courts, but society has a long way to go for full acceptance.

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