Jeff Nichols has inched more and more towards the mainstream with each new film. His debut feature was Shotgun Stories, a quiet revenge tale involving two groups of divided half- brothers. Take Shelter was a modern day Noah story about a family man burdened by visions of an apocalypse, and Mud openly steals from Mark Twain to tell an allegorical story about the legends spawned on the Mississippi River. Even the director’s most recent film, Midnight Special, was low-key sci-fi about a Messianic boy and the parents who have to let him go.
Nichols makes character-based genre films with a spiritual edge. They’re less concerned with plot than emotions and themes. He’s a matter of fact director, a kind of carpenter of the cinema, and now he’s returned to Cannes in the main competition with Loving, the film that sees him leap into the mainstream. Even though it comes dangerously close to Oscar-bait, Loving hints at the director’s subtle sensibility: his affinity for the working class, his cinemascope images of forgotten towns and his respectful, masculine point of view.
This new film takes Nichols into biopic territory with the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the most famous American interracial couple. In the late-’50s the Lovings fled to Washington DC, married, and returned to their home in Virginia where they were prosecuted under racist laws. The couple appealed the ruling and took the case to the Supreme Court where the Virginia law that prohibited interracial marriage was overturned. At face value, this is an ideal story for Nichols. It’s about the lives of Southern people and the traditions that have perpetuated racist laws. Like the fathers in Take Shelter and Midnight Special who protect their families, Richard Loving is a common man asked to rise above what he bargained for.
Unlike his other films, the director seems to be worshiping working class values. Whenever there is labor in his movies, we get the sense of its toll, that it’s difficult but must be done. Loving has an idealized image of the proletariat, which Nichols exploits to grandstand. Richard has been sanitized, stripped of any faults even though Nichols still has the right details. Richard is not a civil rights activist but a common man. Whenever he is interrogated about his marriage, he doesn’t speak in diatribes. Richard responds plainly, “it just ain’t right.”
Loving avoids as many trappings as it falls into. Spotlight recently tackled an essential story without self-importance. Through the media, lawyers and Mildred we are frequently reminded that, as one character bluntly puts it, “you realize this case could alter the constitution of the United States?” Nichols is pretending to have restraint here. Many scenes are driven by an overbearing score but they lack confidence and feel the need to tell us how poignant everything is.
That being said, there are a few reminders of Nichols talents as an honest dramatist. When Richard and Mildred are arrested, there isn’t a yelling match outside their home. A few feet apart, Mildred and Richard stand silently, look at each other and walk separately to the two police cars that will take them to prison. It’s a devastating moment, and Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are excellent but shallow as the couple. They are convincing in terms of their demeanor, but their performances lack nephesh.
A part of the issue, I think, is that Nichols isn’t working within a genre. Visually, the film doesn’t have the scope of Mud, the vividness of Take Shelter or the nuance of Midnight Special. The images in Loving are flat, robotic and edited without any flourishes. It’s the first Nichols film where the form doesn’t just feel simple but primitive, too. The absence of Michael Shannon, who had large or meaningful roles in the director’s other films, is a major loss as well. Shannon is a staple of Nichols’ work and signifies working class values. In Loving, he shows up late in the film as a photographer for Life Magazine. His cameo is a joke though, a gimmick and a hollow shell of the actor’s previous importance.
Same goes for Loving, because although it sometimes resembles the director’s other films, it never gets beyond its superficial representation of working class life.
Loving has Jeff Nichols' trademarks but it lacks the nuanced storytelling that made his previous films so successful.