Loving (2016)

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“It’s God’s law.”

There’s about as much to like about Loving as is there is to shudder away from and turn a cold shoulder towards. Strangely, the film seems to be in its most keenly perceptive state when the story is distant and passive, honing in on drama with a cutting, outsider tone. Doing so gives the first half a kind of less traveled and backroad worldliness to it, dropping us off in a place that not only looks accurate, but feels distinct and real. Then, for some indefensible reason, the film turns itself upside and becomes a cheesy courtroom drama told with too little subtlety and too much panache. I had high hopes for this one, but Loving is just a mediocre movie littered with a few great scenes.

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Virginia, 1958. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), works in construction, toying with cars for drag races on the side. He intends to marry Mildred (Ruth Negga). Because of the state’s anti-miscegenation laws – part of the Racial Integrity Act – the two must drive to Washington D.C. to become man and wife. Richard even hangs their marriage certificate on the wall upon their return, not out of disdain for the unjust laws, but out of pride. It doesn’t take long until they’re arrested for this “crime,” charged with the act of coupling. Love should be as bipartisan and color blind and important as any ideal we hold dear. Too many narrow-minded people thought otherwise some 60 years ago, and rather incredibly, Loving still finds footing in our social inequities today.

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The film is topical in two regards. It’s both pertinent and important in terms of understanding the differences and the similarities drawn between a separatist then and the converging now. But the picture is also topical in the sense that it is applied like an ointment, lathered on outward wounds, unable to really penetrate the skin and work its way into the nervous system. Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols and shot by frequent collaborator Adam Stone, is a beautiful film to look at, even if what lies beneath the thick surface feels as pitted and empty as a cadaver. These leads both pull off gallant performances though. Edgerton is understated, ranging from wide-eyed fascination to a squinting agitation. If there’s a reason to see this film, it is to watch Negga. What a shame the movie couldn’t have been better, because her work is empowering. She displays better control over her emotive eyes than most actresses twice her age.

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Jeff Nichols – at only 37 years old – is one of the country’s most promising directors. He’s a specialized auteur, making rural films with a Twainian sense of storytelling, decidedly dark yet carefully humorous. How he directs with such caution and neutrality typically results in a generic yet singularly told experience. There’s something very clearly off with his latest movie though, easily the most inferior of his efforts to date. His trademark approach of detachment doesn’t work for such an intimate story, although there are trace glimpses of this to start, such as a wide shot of Richard and Mildred standing on the land where they will build a home and a family together. The frame is colorful, vast, green, alive. So too is their future. But rather than maintain this tone, Nichols relents control and directs the second half like a Rob Reiner classic. Feel-good, lighthearted, too hunky-dory for such a monumental human rights case. Loving begins as a film with a stonewalled colorful divide and becomes one about a fingers interlaced harmony. Like too many relationships nowadays, the two feel better separated.

“I’m gonna’ build you a house, right here. Our house.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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