Ruth Negga earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Jeff Nichols’ intimate drama.
Loving (2016), Jeff Nichols’s portrait of Richard and Mildred Loving, does more than put a face to a landmark Supreme Court decision. Their 1958 marriage was a crime in the state of Virginia because Richard (played by Joel Edgerton with a terse determination) was a white man and Mildred (Ruth Negga, vulnerable yet hopeful) was a black woman. But this is not the portrait of a defiant couple protesting all the way to the Supreme Court. The title is more than just a form of shorthand or a clever double-meaning. It is the core of the film. This is about a marriage, a couple deeply in love and devoted to their family, who just want to live together in their home state.
Their courtship is presented in snapshots yet from the beginning it’s like they’ve been together forever, laying in one another’s arms with a natural intimacy. They live in an integrated pocket of blue collar families that could be a planet away from the segregation of the cities. When Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant he beams with a rare smile, like it’s the sign he’s been waiting for, even if they have to sneak across the border to Washington D.C. for the ceremony and set up a household in secret. Negga earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as Mildred and Australian actor Edgerton received a Golden Globe nomination for the stolid Richard, a man who looks like a redneck stereotype under his buzz cut and tight mouth yet is like a member of her family even before they marry.
You could describe Take Shelter (Sony), the second feature from the talented Jeff Nichols, as an apocalyptic thriller, but this is a different kind of horror.
Working class husband and father Curtis LaForche, played with sincere compassion and palpable anxiety by Michael Shannon, has visions of an Armageddon of Biblical proportions: black rain, Earth-scorching storms, birds gone mad. In most horror films, this would be his gateway to a greater understanding of powers beyond the realm of science. Here, they chart his slide into schizophrenia and the terror of the visions are made all the more devastating by his self-awareness. He’s watching his own descent into obsession and mental illness. Which doesn’t mean the visions aren’t real.
Shannon, so often cast as intimidating toughs and psychos, gives the role a startling fragility. His rough-hewn face and sturdy intensity are focused here on protecting his family, and his outward strength only makes his inward helplessness more agonizing, and Jessica Chastain meets his strength head-on, equally terrified by his transformation but determined to help him through.
Director/writer Jeff Nichols, whose debut film Shotgun Stories also starred Shannon in an emotionally intense and conflicted role, takes us through Curtis’ nightmarish visions but keeps his story and his ordeal rooted in the real world. The way they struggle through as he loses his job and sinks them into debt echoes with the very real anxieties of many Americans, but this isn’t simply some metaphor for the stress of economic hardship on American families. This cuts to the soul.
The debut film of Arkansas-born director Jeff Nichols, Shotgun Stories (2007) is a genuine American independent film. It was shot outside of the studio system by a young filmmaker who drew from the character and lifestyle of the rural Arkansas settings – as well as his own life growing up in Arkansas – to offer a different way of life than we usually see in films through a movie that moves at its own pace.
The story revolves around three adult brothers–Son, Kid and Boy–in a rural Arkansas “dead-ass town” (in the words of the characters) who hold on to each other because they have no other family to speak of. Their abusive, alcoholic father walked out on them decades before and then, after getting religion and becoming respectable, started a new family with another woman. The former wife, an angry, bitter woman, raised her sons to hate their father and their estranged half-brothers, the boys who enjoy a close bond with their father. Shotgun Stories opens in the wake of the father’s death, which brings the old resentments to the surface and prompts the eldest brother, Son (Michael Shannon), to speak his mind at the family funeral. His public display of contempt stirs the resentments to action and the grudge becomes a family feud that, inevitably, leads to violence.
The themes could play out as classic tragedy by way of the Hatfield and McCoy’s clan war but the film remains modestly focused on the people and their lives. This is not about righteous vengeance (despite the Bible-belt backdrop), but long-simmering anger and resentment spilling out with fatal consequences. “You raised us to hate those boys, and we do. And now it’s come to this,” Son confesses to his mother as he continues down the road of revenge, almost helpless to stop himself. Nichols keeps almost all of the violence off screen, suggesting the escalation in discreet shots and loaded images. He’s more interested in the people as they push the conflict to greater levels and then face the physical and emotional consequences of the escalating war.