The New Southern Gothic: Loving, Jeff Nichols, and the Southern Artist in the 21st Century
By Will Tomford.
As I watched Loving come to an end, I thought to myself, please don’t have an epilogue text. An artistic director like Jeff Nichols wouldn’t need to end a film with anyting but an ambiguous shot. But to my dissapointment, there it was: the what-happened-next. Maybe this was at the insistence of the studio – I’m not sure – but in truth, the film did benefit from some post-story explanation. It’s sparse for a so-called historical drama; I’ll come back to that point later, but for now, I’ll say that if you’ve seen a Nichols film, that bare-bones technique shouldn’t come as a surprise.
It would be wrong to call Nichols, who comes from Little Rock, Arkansas, mainstream, but he’s also not an arthouse pedant. His five films are refreshingly difficult to categorize: Southern in character, but not by definition; small in narrative scope, but large in theme. Loving might be his most conventional film yet – at least regarding the plot. But even in this at times predictable film, Nichols shows his now well-regarded instinct for visual, thematic-based storytelling. In most of his films, this style has been a boon to the accompanying narratives, but in Loving it didn’t quite work.
Loving is different from Nichols’s previous films in that it is based on a historical event: the Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, in which Michael and Mildred Loving (the irony of their last name is almost too obvious to mention) sued the state of Virginia to have their interracial marriage recognized. But to label the film a historical or legal drama would be incorrect and might give would-be viewers false expectations. This is one of the reasons why Nichols’s usual style doesn’t work as well here. By having to adhere to the historical narrative, Nichols’s methodical, visual style comes across as thin, where it usually feels deep.
The opening shot of Loving is an extreme close-up on the faces of Mildred (Ruth Negga), a young black woman, and Richard (Joel Edgerton), a white man. The camera moves across their skins, contrasting their races. The shot seems at first to act as a divider – an attempt to lay bare the racial disparity at the heart of the film – but it quickly becomes quite tender. Mildred whispers, “I’m pregnant,” and the shot acts as a unifier. Here, the key idea of Loving is told: racial differences exist, but the natural bonds of love and family are unquestionably supposed and understood. It’s this supposed and understood part – the presence of an overarching power in what might be called fate, God, or simply the idea that things are the way they are – that makes this a Nichols film. It also exemplifies why Nichols can be labeled a Southern artist.
Central to the idea of the American South is the struggle between an individual’s identity and the greater forces of the world, chiefly God and church, familial and racial background, history, and law. In all of Nichols’s films, his characters wrestle with these greater forces, and the director is talented at showing and implying these abstract ideas that hover over the action. In Loving, the main force is, observably, love, but then the ideas of home and justice are just as important. It might be the latter, in the form of legal justice, which also explains why Loving doesn’t live up to his earlier films. Whereas in Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011), Nichols could freely explore the abstract implications of struggles with familial and personal identities, in Loving, he is tied down to the more tangible force of state law.
While the story of Mildred and Richard is an interesting one, as characters whose main conflict is with the law and not with each other or even the community, there’s an absence of depth that’s present in those other films. Even as the couple’s case in the Supreme Court approaches, the domesticity of their lives persists. That’s not a problem within itself, but it’s not conducive to exposing much in the way of depth of character. And yet despite this fault, for the most part, Nichols pulls off this trick of the anti-dramatic drama. Negga and Edgerton are superb, as is the cameo from Nichols-standby, Michael Shannon. However, where a similar approach worked in his other films to imply the underlying thematic forces of his fictional Southern worlds, in Loving, those are harder to find.
At 38, Nichols is a young filmmaker. Since around the release of his third film, Mud (2012), which attracted a wider audience (compared to his smaller-scaled first two films) and had the bankability of Matthew McConaughey, he’s been touted as the Next Big Thing. The problem with this argument is that he’s already written and directed five films. If he were going to do a Marvel movie or make a shameless attempt at Oscar bait (despite the early buzz, Loving isn’t such a film), he would have already done so. In a March 2016 profile in Wired, Nichols was dubbed “Hollywood’s Next Blockbuster Auteur.” The oxymoronic moniker “blockbuster auteur” aside, it’s hard to imagine Nichols making films that would qualify, never mind be received, as blockbusters. Even in Midnight Special (2016), which has the literal fireworks of a blockbuster, Nichols is more preoccupied with the intimate moments between characters in motel rooms, or in the extended silences during the car rides that take up much of the film. After the climactic special effects in Midnight Special, there’s complete silence, not a loud score. So it would be more accurate to say that Nichols might be the Next Big Little Thing, a small voice, but certainly an important, necessary one. Loving, told by a different director could be a dramatic triumph of love over social injustice. Instead, it’s a quiet observation on an interracial marriage and domestic life. An iconic photo of the couple watching TV together, taken by a Life photographer (played by Shannon), is the film’s central image of that domesticity.
More so than many filmmakers, Nichols relies on his actors’ performances to convey tone and theme in his films. Just like in the opening shot of Loving, Nichols will let the camera linger closely on an actor’s face, oftentimes well after the delivery of a line. Sam Shepard, with his rugged, beleaguered expressions, demonstrates this perfectly in Mud and Midnight Special, but no one can match Shannon for his ability to show a character’s underlying psyche in such a subtle way. Much of Take Shelter follows Shannon when he’s not talking – working his construction job, building the storm shelter, or driving in his pickup – and it’s in these moments without dialogue that we come closest to witnessing his mental breakdown. In Edgerton, who also starred in Midnight Special, Nichols has found someone who can also express much without talking. And even when Edgerton does speak, there’s a palpable depth behind the words he delivers. But whereas in Midnight Special, Edgerton’s restraint drew the viewer in and was a cause for examination, in Loving, the viewer feels resigned to his silences. Negga has to play the “talkative” one, and because of that, we end up being more drawn to her character and performance.
What might seem out of place in a Nichols film is the presence in Loving of comic actor Nick Kroll, who plays the lawyer Bernie Cohen. When you think of the South, Race, and Courtroom Drama, you naturally go to To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). Well, Bernie Cohen is no Atticus Finch and even more obvious is that Nick Kroll is no Gregory Peck. There was an audible giggle in the cinema when Nick Kroll came on screen – he’s the guy who’s going to argue before the Supreme Court and save the day? – but I think it was actually a clever bit of casting from Nichols to bring Kroll’s lightheartedness into the film. Nichols lets Kroll meander; and Kroll’s awkward mannerisms and lack of confidence as a young lawyer contrasts nicely with the stoicism of the Lovings.
By birth, Nichols is from the American South, and he also studied film there at the University of North Carolina. His films take place in the South (you might object and say that Take Shelter takes place in Ohio, but if you’ve ever been to rural Ohio, you know it qualifies as the South). It’s worth asking then, what it means to be an artist from the American South and how this label qualifies Nichols’s films. Many are quick to tag any artist from the American South as Southern Gothic, but fewer can say what that term actually means. It’s easier to rattle off a few practitioners – O’Conner, Faulkner, Lee – than it is to say what the genre encompasses. Common criteria include the dealing with the macabre, or containing offbeat or grotesque characters and settings. With their backwoods, peculiar atmospheres, Shotgun Stories and Mud qualify here. Even character names in those films, Son, Boy, and Kid (Shotgun Stories) and Mud and Neckbone (Mud), have a timeless, mythical quality to them. But I think what better qualifies Nichols as a Southern artist, and perhaps also a Southern Gothic one, is his ever-present theme of struggle for control.
As I mentioned before, the South is a place where the struggle over family, self, fate, government, or church is magnified – and oftentimes those struggles even morph into the metaphysical, as in Take Shelter and Midnight Special. This is an essentially Southern idea that there are forces beyond one’s control to reckon with: look no further than the mega-Churches of the Bible Belt to see the manifestation of this. Even the concept of States’ Rights – that contentious idea that Southerners often mistakenly cite as the central struggle in the Civil War (it wasn’t, slavery was) – is about a smaller entity gaining autonomy from a greater, more powerful whole.
MO Walsh points out in The Guardian that the best Southern writing is “somehow wise without being didactic,” and this rings true in Nichols’s films. Even in Shotgun Stories, his closest to what could be called a morality tale, it’s hard to say just what the moral of the story is. In this sense, Nichols might rightfully be compared to a master short story writer like Flannery O’Conner, not only for having similar Southern Gothic themes, but also for adhering to the form and style of the short story. The short story, unlike the novel, is rooted in the idea of the condensed glimpse. This quintessentially American (Southern, one might argue) art form is paradoxically freer than the novel, because it can ruminate for a condensed period of time about implied ideas, rather than be a slave to the plot. Beginnings and endings are often arbitrary. In Shotgun Stories, the root of the conflict (the dead father who posthumously starts the whole feud) between the half-brothers is implied and not deliberately shown. Even in Mud, Nichols’s most plot-driven film, what occurs outside the main course of action – images, for instance, like the brooding, flooded Mississippi river – is just as important as the main storyline. In this sense, Nichols isn’t so much interested in exploring individual Southern identity as he is with exposing the mythological themes and forces associated with the South.
Perhaps surprising for a Southern filmmaker is that Nichols mostly shies away from the big Southern themes of God and religion. At first glance, it appears that he favors more naturalistic power: the mesmerzing flocks of birds that plague Curtis’s apocalyptic visions in Take Shelter, or a ditch filled with squirming baby cottonmouths in Mud. But even these border on the spiritual. In Midnight Special, which does overtly reference God and church, it’s not clear whether Alton’s super powers are necessarily divine – that is thrust upon him by the members of the religious cult. Nichols references the biblical ideas of good and evil, but he rarely makes judgements himself. In short, as a Southern artist, he both defies and adheres to the Southern Gothic. Loving was a certain departure from that form, but it isn’t a failure for having done so. If anything, it shows that Nichols can bend our expectations and make a quiet film in what is usually an excessive genre. It will be a pleasure to see what he does next.
Will Tomford is a teacher and freelance writer based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. You can follow him on Twitter here.