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.
A United States where ignorance has the upper hand, where leaders revel in their bigotry, where average Americans taunt each other with proud, unfiltered fury. The year is 1958—what did you think I was referring to?—a time when Richard and Mildred Loving became criminals because of their marriage. They are the subjects of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, one of those historical films that come along to remind us of the distant past. And, sometimes, of the present.
Richard was white and Mildred was black and Native American, and their home state of Virginia had laws against interracial marriage (like 23 other states at the time). The Lovings were legally married in Washington, D.C., but by returning to their home in rural Virginia, they violated the state’s grandly named Racial Integrity Act. Years passed and the Lovings eventually enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union to take up their case.
We need to talk about Alton. Nice boy, bright, well-behaved. But it seems strange that his eyes sometimes shine like the demon kids’ peepers in Village of the Damned, and that he occasionally speaks in unison with the deejay on the Spanish-language radio station—even when the radio isn’t turned on. Little things like that.
Alton’s peculiarity is at the heart of Midnight Special, the fourth feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud). As the film begins, we are mysteriously in the middle of the action: Eight-year-old Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher, the boy from The Confirmation) is being transported across Texas by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s state-trooper buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The authorities are after them, but we don’t know why. Meanwhile, a religious patriarch (Sam Shepard), who seems to be the leader of some sort of apocalyptic cult, orders his deputy (Bill Camp) to find the kid at all costs.
Jeff Nichols is in the zone. With just a handful of films, the Little Rock, Arkansas, native has crafted his own busy little pocket of Southern Gothic, spilling over with feuding families (2007’s Shotgun Stories), ordinary people touched with terrible prophecy (2011’s Take Shelter), and the painful limits of self-aware mythologizing (2012’s Mud). Whatever the subject, the writer/director’s movies are all marked by unobtrusive camerawork, unsparing yet respectful looks at blue-collar living, and a few touches of downright weirdness somehow specific to his region. (Shotgun Stories features a father who names his offspring Son, Boy, and Kid, which is something that you can imagine Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee enthusiastically high-fiving about in the afterlife.) He’s got chops, is what I’m saying.
Midnight Special, Nichols’ latest, continues the director’s winning streak. While on its surface an affectionate throwback to the kid-friendly sci-fi adventures of yesteryear (as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz said on Twitter, if this had been made in the ’80s, it’d never stop playing on HBO), its underlying themes of families under pressure make it very much of a piece with the filmmaker’s other work.
Mud (Lionsgate), the third film from Jeff Nichols, is a story of childhood adventure steeped in the rural culture of life on the Mississippi and the mythology of Huckleberry Finn, but this boy’s adventure is also tangled in the world of adults and family bonds.
Matthew McConaughey is the man called Mud, a scruffy but affable outlaw planning a romantic flight with his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) while thugs and cops alike hunt for him, but the story belongs to Ellis (Tye Sheridan), an anxious young teenager whose parents are splitting up. As his life gets upended, he invests all his idealism into this romantic adventure, creating his own tall tale with real-world dangers and consequences. It’s lovely and moving and deeply rooted in a culture slowly disappearing in the 21st century, a culture that writer / director Jeff Nichols brings out like another character in the film.
Nichols made his feature debut with Shotgun Stories, shot in his native Arkansas and starring Michael Shannon, and followed it with the acclaimed Take Shelter, a harrowing psychological drama starring Shannon and Jessica Chastain set in the economic instability of rural life in Ohio. Mud brings him back to Arkansas, with bigger stars and a bigger budget but the same commitment to character and place.
Mud arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, August 6, with director commentary, four featurettes with the cast and crew, and a bonus UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming. Also available on digital, On Demand, and VOD.
We talked with Mr. Nichols in advance of the home video release about “Mud,” making films outside of Hollywood, the legacy of life on the Mississippi, and of course what he’s been watching.
Mud is your third feature, and you’ve shot all three films on in rural southern locations. This was in your home state of Arkansas, is that right?
Yes, it’s my second film shot in Arkansas. Take Shelter was written for Arkansas but we had to take it to Ohio because that’s where the producer was.
One thing the most compelling things about all three of your films is that they are so deeply rooted in the culture and landscape and people of those places.
It’s part of the design. In Shotgun Stories, it was almost born out of necessity. That’s the area I had access to, that’s where I always knew I was going to make my first film, and we didn’t have enough money or anything else to build any artifice around it. We had to use all of the real locations and real people that we had access to. But in going through that experience, I realized all the benefits that came from it. As my budgets have gotten bigger, I’m faced with how do I protect from the artifice of making movies and how do I root them in reality and naturalism? Even if the movies themselves, like Mud, have these fantastic elements, they all need to be tied down to reality in some way and it starts through writing. I’m thinking about the places that I’m writing, I’m thinking about what the people look like, what they dress like, what they walk and talk like. That all begins on the page and then it’s just… I would call it a discipline that you apply to each department throughout the filmmaking process.