2016, PG-13, 123 min. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Will Dalton, Christopher Mann, Terri Abney, Marton Csokas, Sharon Blackwood, Michael Shannon, Jon Bass, Bill Camp, Alano Miller.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 11, 2016
Try to get your head around this: Less than half a century ago, an interracial couple – one white, the other black – could go to prison in 16 states for committing the felonious crime of exchanging marriage vows. Today, this criminalization of matrimony seems unfathomable, but for simple country folk Richard Loving (Edgerton), a white man, and Mildred Loving (Negga), an African-American woman, it was a waking nightmare that lasted nine years until the United States Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute as unconstitutional in 1967. (The Court most recently referenced that decision’s characterization of marriage as a fundamental right in likewise invalidating bans against same-sex marriage in 2015.) Loving (a title that works on more than one level) unhurriedly recounts this husband and wife’s near decade-long ordeal in a manner commiserate with their quiet and unwavering commitment to each other. The pacing is slow and thoughtful. Director/screenwriter Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) no doubt calibrates the film so deliberately to convey how this grossly unfair law constantly weighs on the Lovings, particularly when they risk long-term imprisonment upon returning from exile to the state they call home. (A scene late in the film, in which Richard panics as a speeding car kicking up a trail of dust barrels toward their isolated rural home, is a wry comment on the lack of artificial high drama here.) Even when you know how this story ends, based on a familiarity with the precedent the couple’s legal challenge established, you still feel anxious as time drags on and on and on. Though it’s impossible to know exactly how these two people felt in coping with this untenable situation – they only wanted to get married and raise a family, nothing else – Nichols gives you a damn good idea, even when it slightly wears your patience.
All too frequently, historical and biographical films bestow a saintly nobility upon their subject matter, transforming human beings into purposely constructed symbols. When that happens, a movie can become preachy and annoying. Loving skirts this temptation and, except for a couple of scripted platitudes uttered by Mildred (Negga in a performance so pure and uncomplicated she gets away with it), it resists glorifying these reluctant heroes, David Wingo’s swelling score aside. Indeed, Richard’s inability to easily verbalize his feelings defines the film’s aesthetic. He speaks as if words must pry themselves from his mouth to be heard, similar to the way Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar struggled to express himself in Brokeback Mountain. But when the inexperienced ACLU lawyer representing the couple (a strangely cast Kroll, who smiles a lot) asks Richard what he would like him to tell the members of the Supreme Court during oral argument, the usually inarticulate man gives a response so simple and distilled you want to reach out and hug him: “Tell the judge I love my wife.” Up to this point, Edgerton’s earnest performance has felt a tad actorly, but in that sweet-spot moment, it rings like a wedding bell.