It’s really spectacular that Austin’s own Jeff Nichols has really skyrocketed in the past five years. Ever since his acclaimed 2011 film Take Shelter, Nichols went on to make Mud (one of the best films of 2013) and this year’s underrated Midnight Special. His big studio debut with the latter was not his only cinematic offering for 2016, with his film Loving premiered to rave reviews at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has been building big Oscar buzz ever since. Nichols’ films have always garnered a little bit of Oscar talk here and there, but the Academy always (foolishly) looked over his work (I’m still baffled as to how he didn’t at least get a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Mud). But Loving, which is based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, might change that for Nichols. Here’s the review.
As mentioned, the movie follows the lives and marriage of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving, a biracial couple who were sent to prison because of their marriage in 1958 Virginia. That state did not recognize their marriage and they didn’t recognize their children that they would eventually raise and bring into the world. The film follows their fight to be able to live together at home in Virginia, with their case resulting in the historic Loving v. Virginia ruling by the Supreme Court that prohibited any laws against interracial marriage.
What I found really interesting about Loving is that it might be the most mainstream film that Nichols has made so far in his career. Even more so than his big studio debut with Midnight Special. It’s a pretty straightforward big-screen portrayal of the lives of Richard and Mildred, and it’s also Nichols’s first period piece that expertly captures the look and feel of 1950s/60s Virginia. One could argue that Loving has Oscar-bait written all over it (period piece, film dealing with race, expertly made, etc), but Loving feels different. If this film were made by less experienced or gifted filmmaker, this film wouldn’t pack the kind of emotional punch that it does. Lucky for us, Jeff Nichols is one of the best voices of his generation, and he delivers one of the most powerful true story films of the year.
Nichols’s strongest asset as a filmmaker is his reliance on his actors to carry the film, and Loving is no different. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give incredible performances that will almost certainly receive some awards attention. The chemistry between the two actors feels so raw and real that you believe that these two actors (Edgerton is Australian and Negga is Ethiopian/Irish) are the real Loving couple. The love for one another starts to be felt on the audience, and each time they’re on-screen together feels really special and wonderful. Michael Shannon, who’s appeared in every one of Nichols’s feature films, has a glorified cameo as a Life Magazine photographer who comes to the Loving’s home to document their life for the world to see. It’s a brief appearance, but Shannon is a brilliant actor and it would be a crime for me to not mention him at least.
One of the more surprising performances comes from Nick Kroll, who plays Bernard Cohen, the lawyer who won the Loving v. Virginia case in 1967. Kroll, who’s traditionally a comedic actor in shows like The League and Parks and Recreation, has an accent that’s at first a little distracting since I’ve seen the actor in less-serious material for his entire career. But once his character is established, he’s quite good in the performance. Kroll is able to nail the idealistic and young Cohen to a tee (the real Mr. Cohen went on to become a legislature in the state of Virginia years after winning this case). Kroll’s performance was a pleasant surprise, and I hope that the actor continues to pursue more serious work in the future.
The film is incredibly gorgeous to just look at. Adam Stone, who’s shot every one of Nichols’s films, once again collaborates with the filmmaker to deliver some really stunning cinematography. Nichols and Stone are still film guys who continue to shoot on film, and the result is breathtaking to look at. Nichols’s frequent composer David Wingo composes a really beautiful score for this period piece. I wouldn’t be shocked if they’re considered for Oscar noms for their terrific work.
Loving is a really beautiful and well made period piece by one of the best filmmakers working today, and I think that should be enough for you to buy a ticket to see the film this weekend. It might feel a little Oscar-bait-ish just from the marketing of it all, but this is one piece of Oscar-bait that you’ll definitely want to take. Also, go see the film to support a local filmmaker in Jeff Nichols. We’re big fans of his work here at Movie Talk, so anytime he releases a film we’ll always recommend you go see it (even a film as polarizing as Midnight Special). Happy thanksgiving, and enjoy seeing Loving (or Moonight, or both!) at the movies this weekend).