How well you like Jeff Nichols’ Loving, his second motion picture on 2016’s release slate, will partially depend on what you look for in courtroom dramas. If you prefer judicial sagas made with potboiling slickness and little else, you’ll probably like Loving less than Nichols likes filming landmark legal proceedings. His film isn’t about the case of Loving v. Virginia as much as its two plaintiffs, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter Loving (Ruth Negga), the married couple at the center of the 1967 civil rights victory over the United States’ anti-miscegenation laws. As an effect of Nichols’ focal point, the movie speaks little to no lawyer jargon and takes place almost entirely outside of the court rather than within.
So if you’re sick to death of courtroom dramas that insist on pantomime, and if you think those kinds of stories demand more restraint, then you’ll probably dig on Loving. It so studiously avoids the clichés of its genre that it feels fresh, original, a completely new idea based on a very old, very formulaic one. That doesn’t mean Loving is great, of course, just that it’s good enough when it needs to be, passable the rest of the time, and ultimately admirable for rejecting tropes that would sink it in an alternate timeline during which it went through the studio system and came out the other side looking like glossy, standard-issue awards bait.
Loving certainly isn’t that, though it’s easy to imagine a scenario where the film does well in the annual year-end awards-giving rumpus for a smorgasbord of reasons: It’s a disciplined, handsome, unfailingly serious screen reproduction of an important real-life moment in the nation’s ongoing fight for civil rights; it’s hitting theaters at a time when we’re still having cultural arguments about who gets to marry; and it’s directed by one of the critical darlings of contemporary cinema. This is the kind of anti-prestige movie critics yearn for, a product stripped away of non-artistic pretensions and ambitions, leaving only the art.
The problem is that pretentious or not, Loving is a Jeff Nichols film, and so carries with it the troubles that often dog most Jeff Nichols films. Here, his relationship with emotion is a very particular kind of obstacle: He’s as anxious about letting his characters wear their hearts on their sleeves as he is, as though a single tear shed will ruin his films’ overarching austerity. In his defense, he’s probably right, but if austerity works in a movie like Take Shelter, by far his best movie until he ruins it in its last few minutes, it has no place in a movie like Loving, where emotion is the order of the day—and if it does, that place should be production and design rather than performance and characterization.
But stoicism rules Loving at the expense of all but the barest hints of sentiment. Nichols’ interpretation of Richard and Mildred’s battle with the prejudicial laws, cultures and institutions that kept them from getting hitched spares us histrionics and melodrama in favor of grounded theatrics, but the film isn’t really about the battle: It’s about the Lovings, and about love itself, and when you’re telling a story about love, it behooves you to let your principal lovers show each other at least a smidge of affection. Loving doesn’t withhold completely, of course, but there’s a happy medium in between benign neglect and overwrought schmaltz. Nichols just doesn’t find it.
That assumes he goes looking for it at all. There’s a reverential quality to his films, each of which deal with family as something inviolable. Loving is no exception, framing the state of Virginia’s infractions against Richard, Mildred and their children as trespasses upon sacred ground. Any scene involving the police, led by Marton Csokas as a disdainfully impassive sheriff, churns bile in our throats, but the sensation of contempt for authority in films about civil rights is a familiar sensation, one that Nichols hardly has to work to court in his audience. The real key to what makes Loving tick is, again, the Lovings, but their devotion to one another when faced with state-sanctioned hate is brought to life more by Edgerton and Negga than by Nichols’ dispassionate writing.
For Nichols, this is par for the course. He put the onus of germinating feeling on his cast in Midnight Special, too (which, incidentally, also starred Edgerton as a man at odds with government in defense of his family). Loving is more naturally invested in empathy for its characters, so Edgerton and Negga don’t need to bring in as much mortar to keep the film bound together: He gawps at her like he’s just discovered the meaning of life, while she lights up the room with a single glance of her eyes. Negga plays Mildred as exhausted and yet inexhaustible. Her shared ordeal with Richard burdens her in ways it can’t burden him. The film is at its best when it drums up the chutzpah to face that divide—there’s a great bar scene toward the end where Richard is lectured about the role his whiteness plays in his and Mildred’s trial—but it so rarely does. It instead takes the easier path of stating the obvious: that the statute that prevented the Lovings from enjoying their union was inhuman and vulgar.
A shame, really, because there’s much about Loving worth respecting and appreciating, whether it’s Edgerton, quietly humming with tenderness for his wife, or Negga, who is really the film’s everything, luminous and deceptively strong, or whether it’s Nichols’ compositions, many of which happen to be lovely and striking. (There’s a great, if too briefly held, shot of Richard’s hand wrapped around Mildred’s against the backdrop of car seat upholstery that speaks in volumes and layers.) But for all that’s good about the film, there’s too much that keeps it from impressing lasting meaning on its viewers. Nichols, once again, proves too timid to dig deep enough into his subject matter to mine something, anything, for us to latch onto. He’s a fine filmmaker, but too emotionally sterile for Loving to truly sing.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Michael Shannon, Alano Miller, Terri Abney, Sharon Blackwood
Release Date: Nov. 4, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.