There’s an old stereotype about awards bait that goes something like dramatize civil rights trailblazers, collect nominations. Loving seems to fit into this category, as its the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple whose legal battle for recognition in Virginia led to a national end to race-based marriage restrictions. It’s the kind of political victory that nearly everyone today agrees was a fantastic thing, and gains relevance with the recent analogous decision for same-sex marriage and renewed focus on race relations. It even has a convenient double meaning in the title, which would be hilariously over-the-top were it not true and all. But it’s important to recognize that the title is Loving, not Loving v. Virginia. Direct Jeff Nichols has decided to tell the story of the couple, with the court case happening mostly in the background. This decision avoids most of the sappy and melodramatic pitfalls of awards season drama, but it doesn’t often bother to replace them with something interesting to watch in the interim.
The fact that it works at all is a testament to the tender performances of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Edgerton portrays Richard as something of a good-old-boy, handy and eager to provide for and protect his family, but full of genuine decency. The movie often returns to the image of Richard building houses for others as his job, contrasting with his frustration at not being able to build a house for his family. Mildred seems more passive at the start, although Negga’s performance never lets her seem unaware, but she shows more altruistic tendencies at the prospect of setting legal precedent. However, as the movie starts with Richard and Mildred getting married, there’s little done to sell the bond between these two people in the early going. While the performers make it work by the halfway mark, there’s nothing to invest us in the events of the early going aside from a historical sense of decency.
The movie portrays a marriage in a tender and subdued way, while not focusing much on the conflict. There is some spark of trouble in the second half, when Mildred welcomes media attention for the cause while Richard more wishes the world would vanish, but its understated to the point of subtext. Nichols standard Michael Shannon briefly shows up to inject some life as a photographer, but vanishes as quickly as he appears. The legal proceedings are secondary, which is likely a stealth blessing given that Nick Kroll shows up as the main attorney; Kroll bears a physical resemblance to the real Bernard Cohen, but doesn’t have range outside of “grinning jackass”. Despite the legal mountain to climb, Loving doesn’t present a human villain to personify the conflict, outside of Martin Csokas’ sheriff in the first half. His sheriff is an uninteresting condescending bloviating racist stock type, and essentially every other character with a speaking role in the film is sympathetic to the Lovings’ situation (although many, including Richard’s mother and Mildred’s sister, deem their devotion foolish), forcing us to frame the central conflict in terms of Lovings vs The World. Since we know going in that the Lovings are successful, there isn’t any urgency to the story. The moment that Mildred receives the news about the Supreme Court decision should be a major reason for cheer, but instead elicits are resounding meh.
Director Jeff Nichols has established himself as a rural storyteller with his previous films, such as Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special. Each of those portrayed areas in the Southern USA with a distinct directorial voice, linking them together even though they had vastly different content, ranging from an examination of schizophrenia to a story about a super-powered preteen. Loving has some of Nichols’ eye, especially in its treatment of car culture, but at many times looks like the awards bait it desperately tries not to be (the cloying strings of the score don’t help). Its dedication to restraint and its lack of soapboxing is admirable, but there’s very little else to fill that space other than a time capsule of the way things was. His previous films have a knack for portraying people realistically, but the situations surrounding them made their plights more interesting. Putting realistic people in a realistic situation treated realistically turns out to be less interesting to watch than one might think.
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Martin Csokas, and Nick Kroll
Rotten Tomatoes (89%)