Courtesy Focus Features

Beset by Overly Minimalist Direction, ‘Loving’ Loses Its Emotional Heartbeat

The film’s approach to 1967’s court ruling on interracial marriage suffers from reluctant direction.

A United States where ignorance has the upper hand, where leaders revel in their bigotry, where average Americans taunt each other with proud, unfiltered fury. The year is 1958—what did you think I was referring to?—a time when Richard and Mildred Loving became criminals because of their marriage. They are the subjects of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, one of those historical films that come along to remind us of the distant past. And, sometimes, of the present.

Richard was white and Mildred was black and Native American, and their home state of Virginia had laws against interracial marriage (like 23 other states at the time). The Lovings were legally married in Washington, D.C., but by returning to their home in rural Virginia, they violated the state’s grandly named Racial Integrity Act. Years passed and the Lovings eventually enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union to take up their case. It went before Earl Warren’s Supreme Court, which overturned the Virginia law in 1967. The story is stirring and infuriating, even as we look back from a 2016 vantage point that finds America far, far more enlightened than we were then, having today achieved a pinnacle of civic wisdom that speaks to our collective genius . . .

But enough irony.

Nichols, the creator of films such as Take Shelter and Midnight Special, has not shaped Loving as conventional Oscar bait. In theory, that is a bold idea. In practice, he has created a dour, mumbling tone poem that can’t even utilize the considerable talents of its lead actors, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. They’re both caught in the muddy trudge of Nichols’ reluctant storytelling, which emphasizes tiny slices of life over traditional scenes. For Richard, Edgerton (the Aussie recently seen in Black Mass and The Great Gatsby) creates a complete physical performance—shoulders hunched, gaze wary, mouth tight; he manages one or two smiles, which startle us with their novelty. It looks painful for Richard to speak, let alone face a TV reporter. The wide-eyed Negga is an expressive actress, but everything is tamped down in Nichols’ grim design. A dramatic moment for the Lovings (and the history of the United States) is handled with a phone ringing and a little bit of body language. Nichols won’t stoop to something as vulgar as showing an exciting courtroom argument.

This approach has its own integrity—the movie keys its mood to this very modest, quiet couple—and I’m all in favor of telling history via unorthodox means. But the monotonous seriousness of Loving begins to grate fairly early on—true, the story itself is no laff-fest, but I’m always suspicious of movies that leave out humor, especially humor that survives even in the direst circumstances. Actually, there is humor, but Nichols keeps it walled-off, mostly in the form of the ACLU lawyers (played by comedian Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) who take up the case. They bring much-needed vitality to their scenes, and are part of the movie’s excellent casting: reliable Bill Camp (who played Brian Wilson’s dad in Love & Mercy) as a small-town lawyer, Terri Abney as Mildred’s fierce sister, and Nichols regular Michael Shannon in a small role as a Life magazine photographer.

To pull off this kind of minimalism, you’ve got to have something pulsing beneath it, and I had a hard time locating the heartbeat here. Nichols leaves out the larger frame of the Civil Rights movement in order to focus on two people who likely would’ve preferred sitting out the struggle and minding their own business. That’s one approach, and potentially a poignant one—if only the human element had a little more flesh on its bones. In the era in which Loving is set, filmmakers like Stanley Kramer (whose Defiant Ones came out, in fact, in 1958) got criticized for the way their social-issue pictures would turn characters into cardboard cutouts for Justice and Truth. In Loving, the characters are cardboard cutouts for Just Plain Folks. I’m not sure that’s an improvement. Loving, Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Nov. 18 at Guild 45th.

More in Film

Hearts Beat Loud. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Opening Weekend

From Chinese internet stars to a classic Japanese masterpiece, our choices for the must-see films screening at the fest from May 17–20.

Just a couple of normal buddies hanging out in Deadpool 2. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Alive and Quippin’

Deadpool 2 might not be as sharp as the original, but the barrage of pop culture jokes keeps things fun.

The women that run SIFF: Beth Barrett and Sarah Wilke. Photo by Amy Kowalenko/SIFF
Women Filmmakers Make Big Moves at Seattle International Film Festival

As calls for accountability and inclusions roil Hollywood, SIFF’s power duo leads the nation’s largest film festival into a fairer future.

Leave No Trace. Image courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Guide

Picks for our most anticipated films at this year’s festival.

Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron star in <em>Tully</em>. Photo courtesy Kimberly French/Focus Features
The Biting Motherhood of ‘Tully’

Charlize Theron carries Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s tale of weary parental life.

Deadpool will say anything to get you to see his movie this summer. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Summer Movie Preview 2018

From action blockbusters to heartfelt documentaries, our film critic picks the summer’s must-see films.

Superheroes … so … many … superheroes. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios
‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and the Infinite Cinematic Universe

The overstuffed “climax” of Marvel’s long-running superhero series is undercut by the knowledge that it’ll continue.

The Conquistador Fever Dream of ‘Zama’

The Argentinian film follows a hapless cog of colonialism disorientingly seeking escape.

Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa/Amazon Studios
‘You Were Never Really Here’ and the Unsmooth Criminal

Joaquin Phoenix captivates as a disheveled hitman in Lynne Ramsay’s hypnotic thriller.

James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander deal with a long-distance romance 
in Submergence. Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films
That Underwater Feeling

Wim Wenders fails to return to form in the distant drama ‘Submergence.’

Edie Falco delivers an award-worthy performance in Outside In.
Photo by Nathan M. Miller
Second Chances in Snohomish

Edie Falco commands the screen in Lynn Shelton’s ‘Outside In.’

Players engage in battle in the OASIS, the virtual-reality universe of ‘Ready Player One.’ Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Fully Nerding Out

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ delivers an occasionally thrilling VR pop culture overload.