Jeff Nichols makes interesting films. Usually with Michael Shannon. At first glance, this film doesn’t appear to have Michael Shannon in it, but then suddenly: boom, Michael Shannon out of nowhere. Pretty much all films would be better if suddenly Michael Shannon appeared out of nowhere. This film review isn’t about Michael Shannon, and I definitely don’t have a man crush on him.
This film review isn’t about Michael Shannon, but it’s a lot about director Jeff Nichols. Take Shelter was ostensibly a thriller that turned out to be about mental illness. Midnight Special was a science fiction film more interested in family than aliens. And now we have Loving, a historical biopic that’s not that concerned about the history. Nichols dabbles in multiple genres, but he’s always after the same idea: grounded character portrayals in an uncertain world.
Nichols’ cinematography shows his love of two things: fields and faces. His films are absolutely crammed with fields. In Loving, the main characters move from the countryside to the city. The city is noisy and cramped, and tries to run over the main characters’ children with cars. The countryside is racist but full of expansive fields and swaying plants (probably corn or wheat or something – what am I, a farmer?). It’s clear which one the characters – and Nichols – prefer.
When the camera isn’t zoomed in on shots of plants or bugs, it’s framed tight on people’s faces. The two leads have to do a lot of heavy lifting – particularly Joel Edgerton, who turns in a fascinating, internalised performance as a taciturn bricklayer who takes a ‘coloured person’ as his wife, in defiance of the laws of 1950s Virginia. He’s not interested in changing the law or in being a hero; he just wants to be with the woman he loves. Ruth Negga as his wife is the more assertive: pulling her husband through each torturous legal battle with a beguiling optimism.
Following my review of Jackie last week, it’s evident that there’s a current trend in biopics of reining in the focus and not giving that much of a shit about the biopic-ing. Gone are the sprawling casts, the easy villains, the heaving crowds, the excitable news broadcasts that are always in the exact right place to dispense exposition when the TV gets turned on. Nichols allows himself just a little bit of the final, moral-clarifying monologue, but cuts it short and pulls your attention quickly away.
This is after all the true story of the momentous 1967 Supreme Court decision to strike down state laws that prohibited interracial marriage. But Nichols deliberately suppresses the legal drama in favour of a character study. We only see the bigger picture unfold in snapshots: idealistic toothy lawyers appear and disappear, while the climactic decision is realised with fragments of speech and blurred silhouettes of the judges. The couple don’t even attend the verdict.
In shying away from the history, Nichols mirrors his characters’ reluctance to be celebrities. Yet one can’t help but want just a little more dramatic pay-off; a righteous stand against bigotry and hatred; a defiant riposte to the contention that “it’s not fair to bring mixed race children into the world”. Perhaps, being mixed race myself, I’m literally showing my colours. And indeed Nichols should be commended for largely avoiding melodrama or cliche. For neither mythologising the struggle for progress, nor condemning ignorance as evil.
The nuance is elegant; the characters exquisitely drawn. In the end, with the soft, swelling score, and a decade of pain giving way to simple happiness, it’s entirely dramatic enough. And how perfect that the couple’s surname – without any creative licence required – turned out to be Loving.