Jeff Nichols: Form and Feeling

The Southern auteur’s latest film, Loving, is mature and deeply personal.

There’s a scene toward the end of Jeff Nichols’s Loving, recently discussed in an NY Times video, in which a drunken Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) repeats tearfully to his wife, Mildred (Ruth Negga), “I can take care of you.” Nichols has joked that his film has no climax, but this scene certainly forms an emotional linchpin. In characteristically quiet, understated fashion, it crystallizes a feeling that runs throughout the film: Richard’s dogged determination to protect Mildred and their children, coupled with his powerlessness to do so. The moment is poignant, not least because of the insight it provides into the director’s own life.

Since debuting with Shotgun Stories in 2007, Jeff Nichols has had one stated aim as a filmmaker: to convey a particular feeling to his audience. In the case of Shotgun Stories, it was the thought of losing his own brother. Take Shelter was the anxiety of the financial crisis. Mud, the bittersweet sting of young love. Each of these films also had a particular formal strategy to drive those feelings home: a stagnant camera for seething rage and social immobility in Shotgun Stories; a slow dolly for creeping dread in Take Shelter; and a roving Steadicam for youthful exploration in Mud. Not coincidentally, these techniques build on one another – from tripod to dolly to Steadicam – providing Nichols with a sort of self-directed film school. Few directors have taken such a deliberate approach to honing their craft.

2016 has graced us with two new Jeff Nichols films: Midnight Special and Loving. On the surface, they could not be more different. The former is a sci-fi chase film reminiscent of Close Encounters, the latter a contemplative drama about an interracial marriage. But to Nichols, these differences of genre and plot are mere window dressing. It’s the feeling he cares about. Pared down to their simplest elements, both films are about a man struggling to protect his family against insurmountable odds. Both films are about Jeff Nichols.

Despite critical acclaim and a loyal fan base, Nichols hasn’t had an easy road. He did not take a salary until Mud and, despite that film’s modest commercial success, his films have had trouble finding audiences. Even Midnight Special, his most commercial film to date, did not perform up to expectations, grossing just $6 million on an $18 million budget. The desire to support his family has made blockbuster jobs more appealing (Nichols was in talks for Aquaman) but he has resisted, lest he be forced to compromise on his artistic commitments.

If Midnight Special felt like bet-hedging, a foray into genre movies to show studios he could make something “propulsive,” then Loving is a willful reassertion of personal style: languid, minimalistic, intimate. If Midnight Special pays homage to Starman and E.T., Loving has more in common with Terence Malick’s Badlands (another Nichols favorite). If, in Midnight Special, Nichols was still honing his technical repertoire (this time adding light to the equation), then Loving finds him in full command of his powers. He has called it both his “most accomplished film…from a technical, directing point of view” and his “most beautiful movie to date.”

While this assessment may be true, the beauty of Loving comes not through flourish but restraint. Adam Stone’s cinematography is stately but not showy. Chad Keith’s production design mirrors the quiet expressiveness of the two leads. Even David Wingo’s music, which defined the aesthetic of Take Shelter and Midnight Special, blends into the landscape. It’s as though, having learned the medium, Nichols no longer has anything to prove.

But, of course, that fear remains. One need only look to the work to see it. The driving feeling behind Midnight Special emerged when Nichols’s son had a febrile seizure. “You have no control over their safety or their environment,” he recalls discovering. That film revolves around the character of Roy (Michael Shannon) coming to grips with this sense of fear and powerlessness. The same feeling plagues Loving’s Richard Loving as he confronts a hostile community and unjust legal system. And it haunts Jeff Nichols as he struggles to maintain both financial solvency and artistic integrity. “Nothing’s permanent,” he tells GQ, “…talk to me in a year and I could be the pariah of this town. Who knows?”

This anxiety has driven Nichols toward a modus operandi that falls somewhere between the personal and the puritanical. He disdains both commercial compromise and artistic pretension, guarding against both by setting rigid rules for himself. On Shotgun Stories: no banjo, no southern accents. On Take Shelter and Mud: no unmotivated camera movement. On Midnight Special: no flashbacks, no digital except for nighttime chase sequences (“in a moving car at night, film betrays itself”). Loving keeps to some of these rules and breaks others (there’s a hint of banjo in the score), but Nichols’s commitment to self-control saves the film from melodrama or moralizing.

Indeed, Loving’s character-based approach gives it an apolitical and almost timeless feel, despite the topicality of the subject matter. It is the anti-Birth of a Nation, neither angry nor overtly activist. This is not to say that Loving papers over the cruelty of racism; rather, it points toward a recognition of the shared humanity that makes racism appear not just wrong but frivolous. At the level of feeling, difference falls away.

The film is not without its critics. Some have read the simplicity of the approach as simplistic. Complaints about pacing and third act trouble come with the territory in a Nichols film, and Loving is no exception. But like the best auteurs, Nichols is finding a way to succeed on his own terms, turning the critiques against him into personal signatures, even strengths. What gets called indulgence early in a career can become a mark of integrity later. And Nichols is in it for the long haul.

So what’s next? Loving’s many nominations will no doubt keep him busy through awards season, though it seems unlikely that his foursquare film will win over more innovative work like Moonlight and La La Land. He might find his way into a Marvel movie – perhaps an origin story that would match his small town sensibilities. More likely, though, he’ll be guided by his own life, by the next salient emotion that burns itself into his brain and compels him to write. Those of us who believe in personal cinema will continue to cheer him on.

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