Writer-director Jeff Nichols built his career on understated tales of extraordinary fictions: a paranoid prophet in Take Shelter, Midnight Special's celestial child, the bayou rogue Mud.
Nichols takes a similarly measured, mostly satisfying approach in Loving, his first work of nonfiction, a civil rights era drama that could turn preachy in other hands. Loving is who the movie is named for and what it's all about, at a point in history when interracial marriage was illegal in several states.
Virginia was one such place, where Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and black woman carrying his child, were arrested in 1958 despite a license obtained in Washington, D.C., where such a marriage was allowed. Eventually, their case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose ruling repealed laws banning mixed-race unions and children.
It's a true story Nichols tells without grand flourishes and showy courtroom scenes that are typical awards bait. Racism in Loving is often as subtle as a disapproving look. Those elements are here but tamped down, humbled like Richard and Mildred, simple folks in a dilemma out of their hands on whom Nichols' screenplay is resolutely focused.
This muted approach allows Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred to skillfully explore a relationship unique for its time and punished for it. Poor and uneducated, they're part of a rural poverty cycle, predominantly black. Nichols' talent for evoking that culture is again confirmed.
Yet no matter how technically impressive these lead performances are, Richard and Mildred don't change; laws do, laws they aren't actively involved in changing when the ball starts rolling. Edgerton's stoic mumble and Method shoulders and Negga's wary devotion seldom waver and only quietly when they do. Like the characters, Loving is so restrained that its romance is repetitive, so removed from the fray that issues get shortchanged.
However, with comedian Nick Kroll miscast as an ACLU lawyer assigned to the Lovings' case, the less attention paid to courtroom duties, the better. Kroll adds little except crowing about the Supreme Court potential of the case, when we know that's where it lands. The legal side of Loving is so lazily sketched that it could be dropped entirely.
Back in the boonies, though, Nichols locates a less considered slice of the civil rights era South, in which whites and blacks related to each other. Mildred's family accepted Richard long before she got pregnant and they married, through dirt road drag races and juke joint beers. His mother (Sharon Blackwood) is the midwife who'll deliver the baby, in biracial defiance of the couple's plea bargain exile from Virginia.
In distasteful contrast, Nichols presents a sheriff (Marton Csokas) claiming to enforce "God's law" by arresting Richard and Mildred, laying out his prisoners' poor lot in life, holding all the cards for now. Loving is a well-crafted reminder of times that some folks think are returning and why they probably won't.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.