Loving


A loving couple.

A loving couple.

(2016) True Life Drama (Focus) Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Nick Kroll, Marton Csokas, Jon Bass, Will Dalton, Sharon Blackwood, Christopher Mann, Alano Miller, Winter Lee Holland, Bill Camp, Terri Abney, David Jensen, Michael Shannon, Matt Malloy, Jennifer Joyner, Quinn McPherson, Dalyn M. Cleckley, Brenan Young, D.L. Hopkins, Keith Tyree, Coley Campany. Directed by Jeff Nichols

 

At one time in our history, interracial marriages were illegal in a number of states of the union. Those who supported such laws often cited the Bible about how God never meant the races to intermix. This is living proof that the more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Richard Loving (Edgerton) is a hardworking construction worker in rural Virginia, a town called Central Point. He lays bricks to build homes. He also has fallen in love with Mildred Jeter (Negga), a woman of African descent. The feeling is mutual and he gets her pregnant. Richard is over the moon about this in his own stolid way; he proposes marriage and she accepts. However, in order to marry her, he’ll have to drive to Washington DC where interracial marriages are legal. The couple returns home to live with Mildred’s parents.

Five weeks after the ceremony, Sheriff Brooks (Csokas) and his deputies kick down their door and arrest the couple who had been sleeping soundly in their bed. Richard is bailed out but Mildred is kept several days as the obsequious county clerk refuses to allow anyone to bail her out until after the weekend. The couple engages a lawyer (Camp) who is acquainted with Judge Bazile (Jensen) who is hearing the case. He agrees to drop the charges – if the couple leaves the state of Virginia immediately and vow not to return for 25 years.

The Lovings are willing to comply but life in Washington DC (where they’re staying with a member of Mildred’s family) is a far cry from the peaceful rural life they loved. Homesick and without anywhere to turn, Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General who refers the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union. The case is assigned to lawyer Bernie Cohen (Kroll) who knows that this could be a landmark case – but it will require much sacrifice on the part of the Loving family.

The case is an important one, one that was used as a precedent in striking down recently the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented same-sex marriages. There is certainly a modern parallel to be made here but director Jeff Nichols wisely chooses to play that aspect down. He seems to prefer making his point quietly and subtly.

There is no speechifying here, no grand courtroom arguments and no stirring orchestras highlighting moments of great sacrifice. Mostly, Nichols portrays Richard and Mildred as ordinary folks who just want to be left alone. They are thrust into the national spotlight somewhat unwillingly; they never set out to be civil rights symbols but they certainly had to be aware that they would become one. We aren’t privy to that side of them however; what we see is the couple going about their lives while coping with what had to be immense pressure.

Negga’s name has come up this awards season for Best Actress honors and she’s almost certain to get a nomination for the Oscar (although she will have an uphill battle against Natalie Portman’s performance In Jackie which is currently the odds on favorite to win the award) . It is Mildred’s film and mostly seen from her point of view. A shy and retiring sort, she is by necessity the spokesperson for the couple; Richard is so taciturn that he is almost surly. Negga plays Mildred with grace and dignity, and at no time does she ever give a hint of feeling sorry for herself, although Mildred had plenty of reason to.

Edgerton has much less dialogue to deliver although he has maybe the most emotional scene in the movie when he breaks down when things are looking their bleakest. Richard was not a very complicated man and certainly not a loquacious one; he just wants to be left alone, but he realizes that he can’t have the life he wants in the home he’s always known if something isn’t done and so he simply allows those who have the savvy and the education to get things done to guide his steps, although he clearly isn’t always happy about it.

The overall vibe is very low-key; there are few scenes that are loud and I don’t mean just in volume. Mostly Nichols keeps things quiet and simple. He resists the urge to portray the couple as heroic in the traditional sense; they were heroic simply by saying “we only want to love each other and build a life together.” They weren’t activists, they weren’t firebrands and Nichols prefers to stick to history here. Some might even call them dull.

But they were heroic nonetheless. Many thousands of people who have married outside of their race owe their freedom to do so to Richard and Mildred Loving. Both of them are deceased at this point so there’s no way to know what they thought of this portrayal of them; something tells me that had they lived to see this movie, they probably would have wondered what all the fuss is about. This is an outstanding movie that portrays the kind of people that I think should truly considered American heroes. Heroes don’t always run into burning buildings or run onto battlefields; sometimes a hero is the one who simply says “this isn’t right” and sees things through until real change occurs. The Lovings certainly did that.

REASONS TO SEE: A story with reverberations that make it timely even now. Understated but powerful performances from Negga and Edgerton elevate the film. The film doesn’t hit you over the head with a political message.
REASONS TO MISS: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Nichols, Edgerton and Shannon previously combined on Midnight Special.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Loving Story
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Allied

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Take Shelter


Michael Shannon has a point.

Michael Shannon has a point.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker, Tova Stewart, Natasha Randall, Ron Kennard, Scott Knisley, Robert Longstreet, Heather Caldwell, Guy Van Swearingen, LisaGay Hamilton, Ray McKinnon, Stuart Greer, Bart Flynn, Sheila Hullihen, John Kloock, Marianna Alacchi. Directed by Jeff Nichols

One man’s prophecy is another man’s mental illness. We sometimes have dreams that are disturbingly real and sometimes we ascribe some sort of prophecy of the future to them. Sometimes the dreams are so vivid and repetitive we think that they MUST be trying to communicate something to us. Is it a kind of craziness – or something we ignore at our peril?

Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is a pretty ordinary guy living in a small town and working construction. His wife Samantha (Chastain) sells crafts to supplement their income which they sorely need; their daughter Hannah (Stewart) is deaf but a cochlear transplant might restore at least partial hearing. Curtis’ insurance would make that operation possible. With this hope looming ahead of them, life is pretty good all in all.

But all is not perfect. Curtis begins to have some disturbing dreams; the family dog inexplicably attacks him. And most importantly, a massive storm destroys his home. The dreams are so vivid that Curtis begins to act on them in waking life. He pens his dog – who has always been mellow and well-behaved – in the yard. And he begins to work on expanding his storm shelter.

His best friend Dewart (Whigham) is sanguine about all this, defending his friend as the towns people begin to whisper that Curtis may be losing it. Curtis isn’t so sure that they’re wrong – there’s a history of mental illness in his family, and he consults with his institutionalized mother (Baker) to see if she had dreams when her problems started.

But things are escalating out of control as Curtis’ dreams grow more and more disturbing. His behavior takes a turn for the worse and when he loses his job even his saintly wife must admit that something is terribly wrong. Is Curtis losing his mind? Or is he privy to a terrible tragedy that will destroy everything he has if he does nothing about it?

Nichols, who first directed Shannon in Shotgun Stories and met him as an actor on Tigerland does a fine job of blurring the line between dreams and reality. There are times when we realize that we are viewing a dream (as when the sky rains oil) but there are others where we aren’t entirely sure and neither is Curtis.

Speaking of Curtis, this is one of Shannon’s best roles to date. Most people to this point recognized him for his work on Boardwalk Empire although his turn as General Zod on Man of Steel may have netted him some mainstream notice. Shannon has always come off to my way of thinking and a tightly wound spring. There is always an undercurrent of darkness in his characters, even his comedic ones (although his comedic rules are few and far between). His size and his intensity make him intimidating and that shines right through in nearly every role he plays.

Chastain, who was in the midst of a pretty good run when this was made, also does some sterling work although she’s a bit overshadowed by Shannon. She has quickly become one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood. While she has been less busy in 2013 (she appeared in no less than seven feature films that were released in 2012) she has built a great base to build a stellar career on. No doubt there are further accolades in her future.

The movie is a bit predictable in places, particularly towards the end but otherwise this is a really good movie. The viewer is left, along with the characters in the movie, to wonder if Curtis is really having visions or just going nuts. I wish the ending would have been a little more ambiguous but otherwise I really liked the way this movie developed and even more so Shannon’s performance which was Oscar-worthy although he wound up not being nominated. Something tells me you don’t have to be much of a prophet to predict that there will be Oscars in his trophy case at some point.

WHY RENT THIS: A bravura performance by Shannon. Blurs the line between reality and dreams nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit rough here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stewart, who plays Hannah, the deaf daughter of Curtis and Samantha, is deaf in real life.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a Q&A in which Shannon and Nichols discuss their long-time friendship and this film in particular.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on a $5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Field of Dreams

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Shotgun Stories


Shotgun Stories

Nobody does the wary look better than Michael Shannon.

(IFC First Take) Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday, Glenda Pannell, Lynnsee Provence, Michael Abbott Jr. Directed by Jeff Nichols

For most of us, family is the most important factor in our lives. We’ll do anything, risk everything, and put our lives on the line if it means protecting our families. We strive to always be there for our families, to never fail them. When our families fail us, it is a terrible thing however.

Son Hayes (Shannon) and his brothers Kid (Jacobs) and Boy (Ligon) were brought into this world by, in Son’s words, a hateful woman who knocks on his door one night to inform him that his estranged father has died. She informs him in much the same way as she might tell him that the local supermarket is having a sale on cantaloupes. She has no plans to attend the funeral, although Son and his brothers do, even though the man couldn’t be bothered to give them names, was an alcoholic degenerate who eventually found sobriety and Jesus, and left them to start a new family with four new sons. Son, as a matter of fact, has a few words to say at the funeral, none of them good about his late dad and his other four sons who don’t take kindly to Son’s harsh words and his final defiant gesture of spitting on the grave of their mutual Pa.

Of course, it isn’t like their lives were scintillating to begin with. Son works on a fish farm feeding the fish. His wife (Pannell) left him recently, taking their son with her, since Son has a tendency to spend every dime he has gambling using a system of his own creation. Kid lives in a tent in Son’s yard and is trying to put enough money away to marry his long-time girlfriend who waits for him patiently. Boy is the basketball coach at the local middle school, living in a van and trying to beat the summer heat by plugging in a home air conditioning unit into the cigarette lighter in the van, with predictable results.

Thus is the way of things in rural Arkansas. Son’s gesture escalates into a blood feud that will leave at least one person dead and the lives of both sides altered beyond repair.

If Shakespeare had lived in Little Rock, this might be what Hamlet might have turned out like. The sense of impending tragedy is palpable, and Nichols is a keen student of human nature (being a native of the Little Rock area, he has a fine affinity for the characters and the rhythms of their speech). That’s not to say that this is a timeless classic, only that it captures certain elements of the Bard well.

Shannon is a man among boys here, showing off the kind of chops that would win him an Oscar nomination for Revolutionary Road the following year. He has eyes that pierce through the camera and a scowl that dares you to cross him, informing you that you would be most unwise if you do.

I liked the dialogue of the movie; there’s an authenticity to it that elevates the movie. The characters mostly talk about the inane, often with a biting sense of humor. Rarely does a movie explore such depth in such simple terms without a bit of a self-congratulatory streak in it. It is business as usual for these characters and they go about it with grim efficiency, knowing that given the way life has always treated them, it will end badly for them eventually.

There is a certain amount of indie drama 101 in the filmmaking here, and I won’t deny that some of this treads familiar ground. I have to admit though that I found this a fascinating life study, because while these guys may be uneducated, they’re not necessarily stupid and they certainly have a lot of qualities that are worthwhile, despite the fact that their father dealt them a losing hand from the get-go.

They keep plugging away having accepted the inevitable and embracing their own undeclared war on their own past demons, although they probably wouldn’t put it in those terms. They just follow their instincts, and those instincts are usually headed straight down the wrong way on a one-way street. If the Hayes boys were reading this, they might say something along the lines of at least that way they can see all the traffic coming.

WHY RENT THIS: A gripping look at an extended family torn apart, with some strong performances particularly from Shannon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ve seen a lot of this before, albeit not as well in some cases.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are on the mature side and there is some violence, although not graphic or brutal. There is some blue language but not a lot. I’d probably think twice before letting the more immature members of your family see it, but should be okay for everyone else.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the sequences taking place after dark were shot in a single night.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Spiral