Jeff Nichols

Loving

03/02/17

Writer/director Jeff Nichols seems to favour outlaws. Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special all feature protagonists who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Loving is, however, the first time he’s based a film on a true story.

Virginia, 1958. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) romances his sweetheart Mildred (Ruth Negga), gets her pregnant and then arranges a hasty marriage. So far, so everyday; but it’s not as straightforward as you might suppose. Richard is white and Mildred, African-American. Though they have travelled to the more enlightened Washington DC to get hitched, such a marriage is still deemed illegal in the state of Virginia and almost before they know it, they have been dragged from their bed in the dead of night and slung into jail. The upshot is that they are faced with a difficult choice. They can get the marriage annulled and forget that anything ever happened; or they can leave Virginia for a minimum of 25 years, risking long jail sentences if they are ever reckless enough to return. But the Lovings are made of stern stuff and they vow to live together in Virginia whatever circumstance may throw at them…

It’s staggering to think that only fifty years ago such laws could even have existed and the Loving’s case was eventually the basis of a major change to the American constitution, so this is an important subject. Nichols relates the story in his signature style, taking his own sweet time, steering clear of sensationalism and coaxing superb performances from his lead actors. Neggar has already been rewarded for her efforts with a well-deserved Oscar nomination, but in many ways it’s Edgerton who has the trickier role, portraying a gruff, monosyllabic man who bears the many crosses he is made to carry with exceptional stoicism.

The film’s gentle pace is clearly something that divides people. We’ve rarely witnessed so many walkouts from a movie as We saw on the Friday evening we viewed Loving. But I found the film powerful and eloquent, an excellent addition to Nichols’ growing canon of work. Nice too to see a cameo from the director’s favourite actor, Michael Shannon, as the photographer who takes pictures of the couple for an article in Life Magazine.

Some people change the world in the glare of publicity. Others do it quietly, avoiding the limelight, but their contributions are nonetheless every bit as valuable. Loving is an accomplished film that’s well worth your attention.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Midnight Special

Unknown

10/03/16

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has given us some fine movies over the last few years but one thing he’s not so good at is coming up with a decent title. Take Shelter? Not one of the best. Mud? A terrible title for an excellent film. And now, here’s Midnight Special, a title that for the life of me I can’t see the relevance of when applied to this absorbing story – but I suppose this is a minor niggle. The film this most reminds me of is ET… though I hasten to add, a much more sophisticated, grown up and gritty version of Speilberg’s sci fi tale.

Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is a very special boy. It has something to do with his eyes. He must be kept in darkness as much as possible and has to wear special goggles whenever he steps into the sunlight. When we first meet him, he’s been abducted by his biological father, Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend,  cop Lucas (Joel Egerton) from the religious community that has looked after him for the past two years. Because of the boy’s habit of ‘speaking in tongues,’ the cult’s leader,  Calvin (Sam Shepard) believes that Alton may be some kind of messiah and he and his followers will do just about anything to get him back, even if it means picking up weapons to enforce their will.

Sam and Lucas hook up with Alton’s birth mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and the four of them set off on a perilous journey to bring Alton to the special destination where he repeatedly tells them he needs to be – but how can they get there when the combined forces of the FBI, the US military and a bunch of religious fruitcakes are intent on intercepting them?

Midnight Special is expertly told, releasing nuggets of information bit-by-bit, just enough to keep you hooked and to make you want to know more. When the solution is finally revealed it is, quite frankly mind-blowing and at this point, will divide audiences into ‘hell yes!’ or ‘no way!’ categories. I, happily, belong to the former. There are compelling performances from all concerned (Adam Driver is particularly good as a baffled boffin trying to work out what’s happening) and the pace never flags.

This is a riveting story about the power of belief and the lengths to which people will go to honour it. It also confirms Nichols as a film maker at the height of his powers.

It will be interesting to see what he does next.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney