In his five films, Jeff Nichols has gone from Ohio to Arkansas to Texas, creating stories of families ripped apart by extraterrestrial presences, apocalyptic visions, and familial feuds. He may have carved out a varied output, dubbed everything from a Mark Twain of the American cinema (a distinction he wears proudly, the write is one of his influences), to an heir to Steven Spielberg. But at the heart of his work is the same love for the characters who inhabit his stories, the quiet, hardworking types that are often dismissed for being unremarkable by anyone but Nichols. The way he writes them, they all belong in poetry.
His scale may have increased from film-to-film, culminating in making an old-school, John Carpenter-esque action-adventure film in Midnight Special, but for his second film in twelve months he has gone back to his roots of Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, creating an intimate film that offers a more nuanced portrait of something that could’ve easily been overblown. Ever since Loving premiered at Cannes last year, it’s almost fatal instincts of restraints have dogged it with the lazy distinction of boring, that Nichols doesn’t reach for the tears freely and is therefore distant. Some call it stoicism, but in not manipulating the audience so cheaply, Nichols shows his true directorial skill – it’s harder to not show restraint and truly come to understand the delicate lives he has been trusted with. Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively), an interracial couple who married in Washington D.C. in 1958 but were sentenced to exile from their home state of Virginia for 25 years before the ruling was overturned in a landmark 1967 case, were reluctant subjects of accidental attention. If they were alive today, it’d be easy to imagine their bewilderment at a film made about them. They purely wanted to marry and live quietly together. It’s a simple truth that a suitably unsophisticated film understands.
Workmanlike is the word to describe it. It’s a film that’s mounted with careful precision and grace, with the deceptively simple skill of building a solid wall, carefully sliding each brick into place. It’s a testament to the film that its primary motifs are bricklaying and drag racing, two things built on precision and simplicity. Engines have to run smoothly, and houses have to be built solidly. Richard and Mildred lead simple lives – Nichols looks at the empty kitchen, the streets outside, the place they’ve built for themselves before the doors fly open while sleeping, making the intrusion only more jarring. When a heavily pregnant Mildred is imprisoned for a week, the sparseness of everything – the dialogue, the white walls, the absence of a ratcheting score or a frantic camera – only makes it more horrifying. A policeman walks by with a man in handcuffs. “Might as well put you in with her tonight,” he says.
Intrusion is a feeling that makes Nichols’s film as viscerally powerful. Richard sneaks into Mildred’s bedroom in the dead of night when they’re separated, leaving only a shadow. The Lovings are forced to move from their idyllic home that Richard built, hemmed in wheat fields and autumn leaves that ache with adoration, to brick townhouse sandwiched in a row where a single tree sits between bricks. When a Life magazine photographer (essentially a cameo by Nichols regular Michael Shannon) arrives to capture some images of the Loving’s everyday, the act of laying their life on display to the rest of the world feels uncomfortable. There’s a sense of being watched and judged in every frame, that being the subject of a reluctant media storm feels like walking down the street, where even the youngest children stare. It’s an easy way to create empathy, but moreover it perfectly shows what Nichols wants. It’s not a celebratory or congratulatory film. There’s no sense of triumphant hindsight, no lamenting how different the present is due to strides of progress. When Richard and Mildred watch the marches in Selma, Alabama on television, feeling detached and left behind by the movement, it becomes clear why. Purely and simply, we haven’t.