(On Cable TV, July 2017) I’m not the most enthusiastic viewer of social-issue dramas, but there is something quietly fascinating in how Loving portrays the story of how laws against interracial marriages were struck down in the 1960s. For, as amazing as it can sound, there were laws on the book in several southern states that forbid interracial couples. The Lovings, whose story is told here, were forced to pick up everything and leave the state for twenty-five years or spend a year in jail. Writer/Director Jeff Nichols takes up their story with his typical attention to details, and the result is interesting largely because the Lovings did not see themselves as civil rights activists, just two people in love with each other. This is particularly the case for the husband, played with quiet determination by Joel Edgerton, who may not have been particularly intelligent or outspoken, but let his actions speak for themselves. Ruth Negga also turns in an exceptional performance as the wife. The script spends a lot of time on the Lovings and very little on courtroom machinations—in keeping with the heroes of the story, which were far more concerned about living their lives than being a symbol. The resulting movie is heartfelt without being overbearing, a combination that makes it more effective than other similar social-issues film. For Nichols, Loving is a return to formal drama after three genre films and it shows that he can do just as well without any genre elements (which shouldn’t be an issue, given that the strengths of his genre pictures were in their dramatic elements).
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Writer/Director Jeff Nichols is now firmly on my radar after Mud and Midnight Special: his quasi-tactile sense of verisimilitude is astonishing, the local colour he brings to his stories is exceptional and he gets to control his movies by acting both as screenwriter and director. His frequent collaborations with Michael Shannon also help, as exemplified by Take Shelter, in which Shannon plays a young dad trying to keep himself and his family together through increasingly worrisome premonitions. It’s not a big movie, but it’s effective. The tension ramps up, Shannon is mesmerizing and Jessica Chastain shows up as a wife who tries to understand what her husband is going through. The ending packs a surprise whammy. It’s a good movie. But, if I can dedicate the rest of this review to post-viewing thoughts, I approached the film as low-key fantasy: there wasn’t any ambiguity in my mind as to whether the protagonist was suffering from delusions or prophetic dreams. I’m a genre-movie fan, and didn’t really bother with any realistic interpretation. When the surprise-ending came, I was more than willing to see it as a classical, literal fantastic twist with no other interpretation. Imagine my surprise when I started seeing references to the ending being open-ended—as a genre-comfortable fan, I hadn’t bothered with the depressingly realistic interpretation of the ending, in which we go back into the protagonist’s mind for another premonition. There’s probably a lesson here in terms of audience expectations and what they get from a movie, but I’m perhaps more interested in noting that Take Shelter’s ending does successfully walk a difficult line between literal and metaphorical interpretation … while being unusually successful in fulfilling both.
(On Cable TV, December 2016) There’s an interesting dichotomy at play in Midnight Special that’s likely to make Science Fiction fans as happy as it’s bound to infuriate them. Writer/director Jeff Nichols made a name for himself in crafting intimate character-driven dramas such as Take Shelter and Mud. But in tacking explicit science-fictional themes in Midnight Special, Nichols may have exceeded his capabilities. The good news are that his character-driven approach is still very much showcased here. He has an uncanny ability to portray the small details of his story and characters in an immediately compelling and credible way. On a moment-to-moment basis, Midnight Special is compelling for its quasi-tactile ability to portray reality. The small beats of the film are grounded to a phenomenal level, and it doesn’t take much for him to sketch his characters and make their adventures feel real. The opening sequence is immediately gripping, and there’s a fascinating moment later on when we see the result of a car chase rather than the chase itself. There are some serious skills on display here, and I would certainly like more directors (especially SF directors) to take notes on how to ground their concepts into believable real-world details. The way he uses his actors is also fascinating: Michael Shannon is magnetic as the lead character, a father trying to protect his son with special psychic powers. Kirsten Dunst shows up briefly in a lived-in role as a suburban mom, while Adam Driver gets an unusually sympathetic role as a scientist trying to understand what’s going on. But for all of the good that one can say about Midnight Special in five-minute increments, it’s a building disappointment to find out that the small moments and good sequences don’t build to anything particularly compelling. Answers are withheld, not all of the Weird Stuff is pulled together in a coherent whole, and the ending seems to peter out before the answers that it promised. There are some spectacular moments in Midnight Special, and some of them even include a terrific sense-of-wonder sequence at the climax of the film. But they don’t add up to something as good as its individual components, and that’s where Nichols’ lack of understanding of Science-Fiction as a genre shows up most clearly. Too bad, because Midnight Special is great in ways that don’t often have to do with SF.
(On Cable TV, January 2014) A coming-of-age drama blended with a crime thriller may not strike anyone as particularly promising movie experience, but thanks to writer/director Jeff Nichols’ savvy, Mud quickly becomes compelling viewing. After two teenage boys discover a fugitive living alone on an abandoned Mississippi island, they get drawn into a dangerous game between his girlfriend, bounty hunters and the adults in their lives. Matthew McConaughey scores another solid post-Lincoln Lawyer role as the titular Mud, a fugitive who ends up fascinating audiences as much as he mesmerizes his two teenage helpers. From a deceptively slow-paced first act, Mud gets wilder and more urgent as it goes on, culminating in a strong shoot-out that settles things for most characters. The sense of place in rural Arkansas is well-presented, and the banter between the two teenage leads is just as well-crafted: At times, the images were powerful enough to strongly remind me of my own teenage antics in rural Quebec. There’s a good heart in this picture, but enough hard edges to avoid it turning into a mawkish collection of clichés. While it may not sound like much of a high-concept on paper, Mud is quite a bit better than expected.