Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Writer, director, and filmmaker Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) tackles the story of Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga). In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor in the case of Loving v. Virginia, which broke open the possibility of interracial marriage all across the United States. The historical drama studies the relationship between Richard and Mildred as they prepare for a family, plan to build a house to live in together, and get married. Their marriage in 1958 in D.C. is what sparks the conflict in Virginia, which also ignites an exhausting uphill battle that sees the couple going in and out of jail cells and courthouses for nearly a decade afterward.
Slothfully Evasive and Sluggish
Loving takes a delicate approach to an inspiring story about unwavering determination and an unbreakable bond between two individuals despite everything in their lives becoming an obstacle. Unfortunately, the subtle approach that Jeff Nichols initiates leaves the film feeling somewhat empty with an indecisiveness that is executed like an inability to commit. Joel Edgerton gives one of his strongest performances thus far. As Richard Loving, Edgerton says very little but his distinct mannerisms and peculiar facial expressions are an open door to how the character is feeling. With that said, it seems as if something is off about Richard Loving. He’s obviously not disabled in any capacity and seems lost when he’s not with Mildred, but he doesn’t act like a normal person. The way his mouth moves when he doesn’t agree with or understand something isn’t natural. It’s just bizarre behavior for what is likely meant to be a tender character.
Similar to how the momentum was interrupted in Sully, another film based on a true story; Loving fails to fully establish a conflict that you ever actually believe won’t eventually work out for the Loving couple. While the couple is given the run around for nearly a decade and faces certain hardships along the way, you naturally feel like they’ll end up together. It’s not just because you know how the ruling went in the Loving v. Virginia case either. In Sully, Chesley Sullenburger and Jeff Skiles saved 155 people, and you never really expected them to be reprimanded for saving so many lives. Richard and Mildred aren’t hurting anyone with their marriage. They just want to be happy and left alone. Being forced to divorce seems silly in retrospect. There’s this predictable aspect to films like this. What’s unusual is that the most shocking part of Loving comes in one of the sentences shown on screen during the film’s epilogue.
The love between Richard and Mildred is understated in every sense of the word. The two don’t speak much as most of their on-screen relationship comes down to loving glances and coy smirks. Some see this as brilliant, but it’s frustrating more than anything. The entire film feels like two hours of foreplay with no release. The actors purposely withhold their talent. They keep everything restrained perhaps to focus on the larger matter at hand, but it makes for an infuriating cinematic experience. The rest of the film unfolds in similar fashion.
This method leaves each character feeling like they have no enthusiasm or passion for the roles involved. Everyone is just going with the flow and rolling with whatever life throws at them. Fate has thrown this speeding, out of control with no brakes semi-truck at Richard and Mildred Loving with the intention of plowing them over and never looking back. Instead of leaping out of the way or taking evasive action, the couple just moseys along calmly and patiently. Meanwhile, you’re left throwing your hands in the air and thinking that they should at least yell a string of vulgarities at said driver or angrily give them the finger or something.
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Race and Interracial Love
It seems as if there’s been this massive influx regarding films with racial issues, which takes away from certain films being viewed individually rather than constantly comparing them to similar films. In the past five years, we’ve had The Help, Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and Dear White People; The Birth of a Nation was released earlier this year.
While Loving focuses more on interracial matters, the African American community is still involved, which causes all of these films to be lumped together. While this is probably an issue every genre faces on a year-to-year basis, it seems that the more an audience is exposed to something the less of an impact it has. The powerful nature of 12 Years a Slave caused The Birth of a Nation to seem tame. It’s a difficult subject to address since then it becomes a question of, “Oh, so you’re saying films addressing racism shouldn’t be made?” Racism is something that is just as prominent today as it was sixty years ago; perhaps more so, but when you have film after film with similar storylines and messages then everything begins to feel like a clone. This cookie-cutter method has each film feeling like a copy of a copy of a copy.
A Small Role Played Big
Performance-wise, it seems strange to say, but Michael Shannon’s small role as Time photographer Grey Villet is way more satisfying than it should be. Shannon maybe has five minutes of screen time, but Grey is knowledgeable, interesting, charming, and has this ability to bring an intimate nature to routine things like washing dishes or watching television. Shannon has made a career of playing these off-kilter and intimidating characters and in 2016 alone he has portrayed more accessible characters that are amusing, genuine, and relatable.
It also seems odd that the film has to throw in this divorce reminder well after the fact it was initially introduced. Faced with the divorce option early on, Richard and Mildred choose to move instead. After having three kids and eventually (and illegally) moving back to Virginia, somebody decides to throw in, “Well you could still just divorce her and things would get easier.” This sends Richard on this brief downward spiral, which leaves you scratching your head. It’s odd that a belated comment like that would have that much of an effect that late in the film. It’d be like watching someone trip and fall, but then an hour later you exclaim, “Hey, watch your step!”
Jeff Nichols has some interesting aspects buried within Loving. What could have been a very basic film about love and fortitude is this unusually timid story that embraces subtlety and makes louder statements with what’s not being said rather than what actually is being spoken. In the end, though, the story’s execution backfires and Loving is a completely dull experience that feels too lackadaisical and laid back to fully satisfy.