The simplicity of Jeff Nichols’ Loving is laid out in its opening sequence. We begin with a close-up on Mildred (Ruth Negga) as she hesitantly, in a whisper, announces that she is pregnant. We hard cut to a close-up on Richard (Joel Edgerton), confused yet overcome with happiness. Another hard cut follows to the two sitting on the deck of Mildred’s home. The porch light illuminates the two figures as Mildred lays her head on Richard’s broad shoulders, with Nichols looming on the shot; he’s prone to this looming, where more often than not he will linger on a scene for just a second or two longer than you’d expect.
Loving is simple, well-intentioned, and frequently moving. But as was the case with his previous film from earlier this year, the erratic Midnight Special, Nichols’ examination of Mildred and Richard Loving’s trials are marred by his inability to reconcile his sensibility to play to a more palatable (read: broad) audience.
The subdued and delicate pacing that Nichols develops from his opening scene is maintained through much of the first act, where the news of Mildred’s pregnancy prompts Richard’s immediate proposal. He’s a beacon of blue-collar virtue, a Virginian bricklayer that enjoys working on cars, who eventually purchases a plot of land with the intention of building a home for Mildred. They marry in D.C. to “avoid any legal red tape” says Richard, and Nichols convincingly inspires the hope that these two lovers could conceivably achieve their hopes and dreams within their insular and quiet Virginia community.
They don’t, obviously, with police arresting the two in violation of the state’s Racial Integrity Act, prohibiting the cohabitation and marriage of a blacks and whites. Under the guidance of their lawyer, the two plead guilty, effectively avoiding a jail sentence in substitution for a 25-year exile from the state. It’s a crushing blow, particularly for Mildred, whose familial ties are rooted deep within the small community.
I was with Loving throughout these opening passages, with Nichols’ capacity for lingering on tiny moments of rural domesticity ringing especially true. Much like his debut film, Shotgun Stories, the specificity of his characters’ cadence and tempo possess a lived-in quality that suggests a degree of firsthand inspiration. And the muted tenderness shared between his two lead actors propels the picture to the heights of performers like El Hedi ben Salem and Brigitte Mira in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterful Ali: Fears Eats the Soul – a film that’s serves as a clear thematic and tonal inspiration for Loving.
But the naturalism proffered by Negga and Edgerton is undercut by two extenuating qualities. The first is found in Nichols’ reckless and oft-times rushed progression of time, where the delicacy and urgency of the involving opening passages are followed by the hurried pacing of its middle portion that sees Richard take shelter with Mildred and her cousin in Washington D.C. The thoughtfulness of Nichols’ early storytelling picks up rapidly, as a montage covers years as Richard and Mildred have child after child. The jarring transition in timing is a pronouncement on the dichotomy of urban and rural living, but it’s a false dichotomy that operates at odds with Nichols’ imagery; he’ll fixate on subtle details of urban squalor and confinement yet progress without any sense urgency through the years.
Second, and Loving’s most egregious quality, comes from Nick Kroll’s glaringly self-conscious performance as ACLU-appointed lawyer Bernie Cohen. He clearly operates as the sort of smug attorney meant to get under your skin, as evinced by Richard’s reaction to him. But it’s the manner in which he operates within the context of Nichols’ narrative that is so jarring: every vapid quality of didacticism and speechifying that Nichols actively avoids throughout the duration of Loving is embodied in Kroll’s character. The worst tendencies of these sort of social advocacy/awareness narratives tends to resort to characters of this type and I was disarmed by Nichols’ ability to sidestep this unnecessary quality; that is until he doesn’t.
There’s clearly much to admire about Loving, from the aforementioned performances (Negga, in particular, has an uncanny capacity to take and hold a close-up for long stretches of time) to the sensitivity of Nichols’ direction. But it becomes so soft, safe, and non-confrontational during it’s latter half, where Nichols gives into the rousing melodramatics of contemporary biopics that he seemed to be actively against. It’s exactly what you come to expect from an Oscar-primed social advocacy biopic: unchallenging and uncomplicated. It’s something I would come to expect from Ron Howard, from which Loving would be Perfectly Acceptable Oscar Bait. But from Nichols, I can’t help but be disappointed.