Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
It’s impressive for any director to make a great movie, but it’s astounding to me when a director manages two great films in a single calendar year. I was trying to think of directors that have done it and I can only count them on one hand. Alfred Hitchcock is the granddaddy of them all, making Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent in 1940 and then Dial M for Murder and Rear Window in 1954. Brian De Palma made Carrie and Obsession in 1976. Probably the most famous example is Steven Spielberg directing the beloved blockbuster Jurassic Park and the stunning Holocaust epic Schindler’s List back to back, both films released in 1993.
But if anyone can think of a director besides Jeff Nichols who has done it in the last, say, ten years, I’d love to know. Nichols, who made the fantastic Take Shelter in 2011 and then the equally impressive Mud in 2013 took on a whole new level of greatness in 2016, not only making two fantastic films, but two fantastic films that are different in almost every way. One of my two favorite theatrical films I saw in the spring of 2016 was Midnight Special, Nichols’ weird and compelling science fiction indie answer to E.T.
And then he returned with the Cannes Film Festival darling and awards-favorite drama Loving, a true story about an interracial couple who married in Virginia in the late 1950s and were later arrested and ordered to never return to the county for twenty-five years… that is, until their story became national news and the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for Richard and Mildred Loving and any other couple of mixed races to not be allowed to be married.
Unlike the stylish Midnight Special, Loving is told in a serious and straightforward manner, Nichols’ focus entirely on presenting this important story with class and subtlety. But despite its slower pace, it is just as tense and harrowing as Midnight Special or any film I’ve seen this year. Nichols never goes for the easy “Oscar” scene, never allows for a moment of sentimentality and forced emotion. His interest is in showing these two characters as three-dimensional human beings who aren’t crusaders, who aren’t Erin Brockovich; all they want is to love each other and live together in peace.
The casting of the two leads is impeccable, and so ultra-important to the success of this film. I have gone hot and cold on Joel Edgerton over the years. I enjoyed him in Warrior, and his work writing and directing last year’s underrated The Gift, but to me, his work in Loving is his breakthrough. This is a searing and courageous performance that fully embodies a man who loved his wife but wanted nothing to do with all the media hoopla around his case. And then there’s Ruth Negga, an exhilarating presence who has finally been given a great role in a film. She gives Mildred quiet strength and endless optimism that comes through in as simple as a look, or in a subtle gesture, never in a maudlin weepy scene. She is a commanding actress I can’t wait to see in more films.
The one familiar face in Loving from the Jeff Nichols canon is Michael Shannon, who has now appeared in all five of the director’s films (his debut, 2007’s Shotgun Stories, I still need to see). He’s only in the film a tiny amount, portraying a photographer from Life Magazine who captures Richard and Mildred in their natural setting. Shannon is the through-line to all of Nichols’ movies, which may stray into different genres and may offer different kinds of stories, but no matter what Nichols does, he imbues his material with humanity, rich thematic content, fantastic actors, and an eye for detail. He’s one of the best writer/directors working in film today, and I for one am amazed at what he accomplished in 2016.
Watching Like a Writer
Loving made me think about how to write an historical story about a real-life event. I still haven’t attempted writing either a true story or an historical story, but I’ve had two ideas floating around, and studying Loving will help me develop them. I was particularly impressed how Nichols handled a tragic development that happened following the landmark Supreme Court ruling. The end of the film is laced with a tinge of sadness, but it also doesn’t overwhelm all the good that’s come before.
Think of a real-life event that would make for a great historical novel. What would it be? How would you present it on the page?