I am a huge fan of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Shotgun Stories), and in particular, his methodical, textured and grounded style of filmmaking. And boy does he exhibit all of those qualities in Loving, the story of the Virginia couple, Mildred and Richard Loving (played by Ruth Negga and the hardest working man in show business, Joel Edgerton) at the heart of the Supreme Court decision legalizing interracial marriage. Nichols’s depiction of their small Caroline County Virginia town, with its slow pace and cloistered mentality, eschews the Hollywoodization of most civil rights flicks. The system is wrong and cruel, and the instruments of same (the police, the courts) are in service of that wrong, but these are just people, neither mustache twirling villains or radiant, untouchable martyrs.
The problem with the film, however, is that not every historical figure is deserving of a movie treatment. George Patton, sure, but Omar Bradley? The fact is, the Lovings, as presented by Nichols, are so simple, so unremarkable, that they feel less like leaves caught in a whirlwind or champions for their own cause and more like bystanders. Mistreated bystanders, but mere bystanders nonetheless. Negga shows some deftness in delivering her culture shock at having to escape to the city, and you can see a steel in her spine stiffen at the injustice at play (the Lovings were essentially banished from Virginia). But Edgerton is so internal and non-demonstrative that he doesn’t even classify as inscrutable. He’s just a dud, bordering on the disinterested.
It is almost to Nichol’s credit that this film is so boring. He steadfastly refuses to dramatize. But boring and entertainment are not reconcilable.
Perhaps Nichols sensed this flaw, because while he gets estimable but sober help from Bill Camp and Martin Csokas as the local attorney and sheriff who, respectively, assist and plague the Lovings, he tries ever so slightly to give the audience some flash in the form of comic actor Nick Kroll, as the ACLU lawyer for the couple. The gambit fails. Kroll is, frankly, a lousy, one-note dramatic actor and it almost feels like he wants to start cracking up. The effect is weird and off-putting.
Ultimately, this film feels like an obligation. If you feel so obliged, go to it.