In Caroline County Virginia in 1958, an oridinary white man (Joel Edgerton) shows an ordinary black woman (Ruth Negga) the plot of farmland upon which he wishes to build them a house and then asks for her hand in marriage. It all seems so sweet and pedestrian and normal. He drag races cars when not building houses while she preps family meals and squeals with her sister over her coming nuptials. But it was anything but normal…in fact, their relationship was against the law in their own home state where both their families had lived and died alongside each other for years. After stealing away to Washington D. C. to get married, the couple are arrested in their bedroom upon returning to their peaceful Virginia homestead where the state refuses to leave them in peace.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols, who has become the premier chronicler of the American South for his cinematic generation, crafts a script that highlights the quiet, simple dignity of Richard and Mildred Loving while showing the casually insidious everyday acceptance of institutionalized racism. “You should’ve known better,” the law tells Richard. There’s no physical violence against the couple, but a threat of being torn apart emotionally hangs over them like a pall. Yet there are no histrionics over the Lovings’ predicament, no highfalutin ideals to which they subscribe, only a sense of what is decent and true. They love each other. It’s that simple. And they deserve to build a home and family just as much as anyone else. Both Edgerton and Negga transmit the feelings left unsaid through the nuances of their body language and facial expressions…both of them delivering master classes in subtlety and repressed emotions that come pouring out of their eyes. Always dignified…never wanting the spotlight. Continue reading →
It’s a potent line spoken by Joel Edgerton as Lucas, a lost soul of a man who recently reunited with his childhood best friend, Roy (Michael Shannon, perfectly run-down but not out, as always) and now finds himself in a fine mess, waxing about the nature of people and the world with Sarah (a quietly fervid Kirsten Dunst) in a hotel room hoping that Roy (who “believes in something” Sarah’s fatalist romanticizes) makes it back from wherever he just went with his and Sarah’s son Alton (Jaeden Leiberher), a sick little boy with special powers wanted by the cult from which he came and the US government. They’ve got to get the kid to a very specific place for a very specific reason (to fulfill a destiny?), but they don’t know what or why that is.
Everyone in the film ends up believing in Alton’s powers, but all have their own perverted take. The cult sees him as their chosen one, the government as a weapon. Early on in the film Lucas and Roy hide out with Alton at an ex-cult member’s house (played with perfectly subverted creepiness by David Jensen). In the middle of the night, the whole house shakes and Roy and Lucas run into Alton’s bedroom where Jensen’s character is doing “that eye thing” with the child – perhaps a creative veil meant to symbolize child abuse at the hands of the religious? Later in the film after Lucas and Sarah’s conversation about belief, Roy duct-tapes a Kevlar vest to Alton’s small frame (for his protection, of course) which eerily echoes the images of child suicide bombers with bombs strapped to their chests (they, too, fulfilling a destiny). Yes, indeed, we got people dying (and killing) everyday believing in things. This kind of subtext is becoming Jeff Nichol’s trademark, and where his writing and directing is able to build tension and elicit primal emotional responses from his audience.
In this way, Nichols masterfully uses the science fiction genre as a vehicle to explore modern-day societal fears. Continue reading →
Mud, despite its name, is anything but muddy. It’s a finely tuned man’s-man tearjerker about boys coming-of-age, fathers realizing what’s important, the women they love and the trouble we’re all capable of making for ourselves and others. Writer director Jeff Nichols (who previously haunted us with another fine piece of blistering Americana in Take Shelter) crafts the film like an adaptation of a long-lost great American novel, framing it with a strong plot and filling it to the brim with fulfilling character arcs, character foils, and visual motifs of migrating birds, slippery snakes, open windows and the great wide flowing waters of the Mississippi.
Mud sure is a tale, but it’s also a man – a man called Mud, played with crafted precision by good ol’boy Matthew McConaughey, who in the past few years with roles in films like Bernie, Killer Joe and now Mud, has eradicated the stank left on him from years of bad rom-coms and “sexiest man alive” shenanigans to emerge as a truly great (dare I say method) actor. Here he’s a man in hiding on an island out in the middle of the Mississippi River running through Arkansas. He’s discovered by a pair of young teenage boys: good-hearted, sensitive and eager-to-throw-a-punch Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who previously only got to cry and play in The Tree of Life, but here emerges as an appealing young actor worth watching for in the future) and shit-talkin’ smart-as-a-whip Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who ventured out to the island on the promise of finding a cool-ass boat lodged in a treetop (“A helluva thing,” says Mud). Turns out Mud’s been living in that helluva thing, and boy, does he have some stories for them boys. Continue reading →
Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Sundance hit Take Shelter is a haunting slow-burner about a man trying to weather the storms from within and without. It exists at that rare cinematic nexus of emerging talents in front of and behind the camera. It’s the type of small film that deserves a bigger audience than it has thus far earned.
In the lead role of Curtis, Michael Shannon (currently mayor of creep city on Boardwalk Empire) builds upon his past typecasting in films like Revolutionary Road and My Son My Son What Have Yee Done? to fully inhabit a man at wit’s end. As his wife, Samantha, Jessica Chastain emerges from the dreamy otherworldliness of Malick’s The Tree of Life to portray a lovely down-to-earth young woman who fights with every fiber of her being to keep her family together even as she fears her husband is losing his mind. Shannon’s unnerving physical performance and average schlub personality is the perfect foil to Chastain’s girl-next-door beauty and gumption. Together they dance through Nichols’ quiet mind-field and let off tiny emotional explosions that could rattle the doors off a barn…or a storm cellar. Continue reading →