Loving: A (too tiny?) Portrait of a Marriage

LOVING  (2016)
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Focus features, 123 minutes, PG-13
* * *

Loving is a hard movie to review. On one hand, it focuses on the couple at the center of one of the most important legal decisions in American history: the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned anti-miscegenation laws and paved the way for marriage freedom for all, including same-sex unions. On the other hand, the film's protagonists are so ordinary that it's hard to connect them to the legal precedent that bears their name. Director Jeff Nichols has the problem of trying to make an audience care about a couple with all the charisma of the backcountry Virginia dirt from whence they sprang. He doesn't entirely succeed.  

For those unfamiliar with the case, Richard Loving (1933-75) and Mildred Jeter (1939-2008) grew up in hardscrabble Caroline County, Virginia. Although he was white and Mildred was mixed race (Indian, black, white), they came of age in a part of Virginia where poor whites such as the Lovings interacted easily with people of color–a place where a shared rural values and lack of economic opportunity often trumped race. Richard and Mildred were childhood sweethearts even before they journeyed to the District of Columba to marry on June 12, 1958. Mildred was, by then, heavily pregnant with their first child. Had they stayed in Washington, you'd have never heard of them. Instead, they returned to Virginia. In the middle of the night, the police broke into their bedroom and arrested them for violating Virginia's 1924 Racial Integrity Act. When Richard pointed to their framed marriage certificate, he was told, "That's no good here." The Lovings were jailed, pleaded guilty to violating the law, and were banished from the state for 25 years with the understanding they'd be imprisoned if they were caught cohabiting or being together within Virginia's borders. The film follows their exile to Washington, where they had two more children; their attempts to live undetected in Virginia; and the circumstances that ultimately landed their case before the SCOTUS.

The viewer's dilemma is obvious from the start: the Lovings—aside from their racial difference–practically define the term "ordinary." They were rudimentarily educated, soft-spoken, and unremarkable people–he a bricklayer and she a homemaker. Their slice of Virginia was one where folks worked on and raced cars, drank in roadhouse bars, and picked tobacco. Director Nichols captures the vibe of a 1950s world in which few people challenged authority, hence we watch Richard seethe at their arrest, but not question it. Not that doing so was in character; his manner was as slow as that of the countryside. Appreciating this film requires that you surrender to its languid pace. Indeed, one of the more powerful points the film makes is that the Lovings were so unexceptional that one wonders why Virginia would want to bother two such harmless individuals. The pacing, though, is also the film's major problem. Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a man of so few words that the film is nearly silent when he's on camera. Mildred (Ruth Negga) is a step up on the laconic scale, but it's a very small skyward stride. We quickly get the idea that the prosecutors are morally challenged. Folks such as the Lovings can only be viewed as threats when privacy rights take a backseat to artificially constructed (and bigoted) views of purity and propriety. That's an important lesson, but it still leaves us with passive protagonists who come off as victims lacking agency.

I can understand why Nichols wouldn't want to make another courtroom saga, but the focus on the Lovings as a couple lacks the dramatic sparks of said filmed legal battles. Nichols pushes the court case so far into the background that the most compelling part of it is the Lovings' inability to comprehend the legal system. It doesn't help that Nichols reduces the ACLU's role to something more akin to a cartoon than as a champion of civil rights. Left on the table are options that might have been more interesting on the screen. Why, we wonder, was there so little overt racism in Caroline County when other parts of the South are aflame? Is that accurate, or was intolerance there simply a can of worms Nichols didn't wish to open? We don't even know how Richard perceived race. There is a short scene in which he appears to have never given it much thought, but it's hard to imagine that even a man as unreflective as he could reduce race to a simple, "I love my wife" statement. There's also a matter of the biggest liberty taken in the film, the decision to distill the tension to black and white terms. Although biographical details of Mildred remain scant, she emphasized her Rappahannock and Cherokee roots and indentified as Native American, not black. That didn't matter under Virginia law, but tinkering with Mildred's self-identification seems more a nod to contemporary sociology than to historical accuracy–to say nothing of being reductionist and robbing the film of an opportunity to discuss the central fictiveness of race.

In my view, the best way to enjoy this film is to lower your expectations and think of it more as quiet portrait of injustice rather than a drama. Remember that the Lovings were legally married for nearly a decade and still underwent travails. If the film makes you think more deeply about identity, privacy, fairness, and tolerance, it will have been two hours well spent. Just don't expect to lose your socks over visuals or dynamic performances. That's no rap on Edgerton or Negga. Not even actors as fine as they can make a Fiat 500 roar like a Ferrari.

Rob Weir


The Girl on the Train Derails as Movie

Directed by Tate Taylor
Universal, 112 minutes, R (violence, brief nudity, sexual content)
* *

The Girl on the Train is a pedestrian adaptation of a very good book. In fact, were it not for strong performances from the cast, this film would have been an early Thanksgiving turkey.

Paula Hawkins’ novel was a best-seller because of its often deft handling of the mind of an alcoholic and abused woman. It’s hard, though not impossible, to make convincing films about tortured souls. Alas, director Tate Taylor isn’t up to the task. He has taken a book that relied on psychology and turned it into a cheap stalker film. The Girl on the Train centers on Rachel (Emily Blunt), a pathetic divorcee who drowned her inability to conceive and her failing marriage in bottles of cheap gin even before her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) dumped her. She’s a world-class drunk—the sort who experiences blackouts, acute memory loss, and vivid fantasies that she can’t distinguish from reality. Were it not for the kindness of an over-indulgent friend, Cathy (Laura Prepon), she’d probably be homeless as well. Unbeknown to Cathy, Rachel has also been jobless for over a year; she uses her alimony to pay rent and disappears from New York City each morning to commute to “work.” In truth, she just rides a Metro North train and sips gin through a water bottle, her route taking her through Ardsley-on-Hudson where she and Tom used to live, and where his Yuppie lifestyle continues with a new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their newborn daughter, Evie. Rachel spies on them from afar and sometimes from close up; she once showed up at the house and took Evie for an unauthorized walk into the yard. In her drunken stupors, Rachel also repeatedly observes another couple and imagines them as her romantic ideal—until one day she sees the woman we’ll later know as Megan (Haley Bennett) snogging with another man (Edgar Ramirez) instead of her husband, Scott (Luke Evans).

Rachel has become as dependent upon fantasy as on booze and takes the perceived betrayal personally. When Megan’s body is discovered in the woods, Rachel insinuates herself with Scott and interjects herself into the murder investigation—an unwise move as she’s also a prime suspect as a stalker, alcoholic, and liar who pretended to have known Megan. In fact, NYPD Detective Sgt. Riley (Allison Janney) is pretty sure that Rachel is the killer and maybe she is—Rachel’s memory has more holes than a fishnet factory. To comment further would require a spoiler alert, so I’ll just say that the last half of the film involves solving the murder mystery.

There are so many themes that could have been plucked from Hawkins’ novel, including planted memory, abuse syndrome, the alcoholic mind, therapist/client boundaries, and living vicariously. Alas, what this film best demonstrates is that Tate Taylor is an unimaginative and heavy-handed director. He is best known from messing up another wonderful book, The Help, which he bathed in saccharine sweetness that removed all of the bitterness that made the novel poignant. This time he has done the opposite—he gives us paste-up characters that have no personality. They are “types,” not convincing individuals, and about the only thing we can say is that most of them are thoroughly unlikable.

The changes made to Ms. Hawkins’ novel are cosmetic. The book was set in London, not New York, and the decision to Americanize the action makes zero sense. First of all, Blunt is English, Evans is Welsh, Ferguson is a Scot/Swede, and Ramirez is a Venezuelan playing an Arab. I suppose one could make the case that New York is so cosmopolitan that it doesn’t matter, but here’s what does: Taylor is apparently so ignorant of police procedure that he doesn’t know that a detective in New York City wouldn’t be involved in a suburban murder case 28 miles north of the city. (An urban detective works for London because Scotland Yard’s jurisdiction reaches to the ‘burbs, but that’s not the case in the United States.) This is emblematic of the corner-cutting Taylor takes elsewhere. The central actors are very good, but this train derailed before it left Grand Central. 

Rob Weir    


Peia Thunders with Beauty on Album of the Month

Beauty Thunders
Peia Song Music

If you put Enya, Loreena McKennitt, a diva from the Met, birds, and theatrical Japanese folk opera into a blender and set it to “puree,” you might end up with somebody like Peia Luzzi. Think I’m kidding? Check out “Beauty Thunders” and you’ll hear what I mean. It’s one of several of what I call “earth songs” on her album. Before it concludes Peia’s vocal emulates those of recorded fowls and it flits among Shai Siriki’s driving oud notes. The composition is, depending on your point of view, either jaw-dropping amazing or just plain weird. I'm going with the first interpretation, but whichever side you come down on, you’ll be forced to conclude that hers in a truly remarkable voice. Believe it or not, this is just the tip of the musical ice berg. She kicks off the album with “Szerelem,” a traditional Hungarian lament before she becomes a Japanese bird. She follows that flight with a Scots Gaelic song rendered Clannad-like and then segues to the Celtic mysticism of “Dance in a Storm,” an original, but one that sounds like it was plucked from Ms. McKennitt’s repertoire—complete with climb-the-scale crescendos, dreamy ambience, and world music instrumentation featuring Mike Wofchuck’s ban-the-can percussion. In fact, it feels a lot like McKennitt’s “Lady of Chalot” in style and spirit. The next three tracks come from, in order, Peru, the Basques, and Ireland, and the final two tracks are another that feels Japanese and “We Shall Rise Again,” a quiet, prayerful reflection on the earth, people, and renewal.

So who is this Peia Luzzi who squats in the dark shadows of her sepia-drenched CD cover, a pile of stones meditatively stacked on her right and an enigmatic feathered staff planted to her left? A Celtic chanteuse? A European world music devotee probing ancient rituals? A vagabond Druid wannabe? Nope, nope, and nope. She’s a Nutmeger (from Connecticut) and a Berklee School of Music grad, though I’d wager she is indeed interested in mysticism and ritual. But before you toss her into some catchall category like New Age, listen to her voice. It rings clear and strong, and is ornamented with wondrous and beautiful things: small catches, breathtaking elides, and a range as big as the Andes. Even if you find her themes too abstruse for your taste, you are forced to acknowledge that you are in the presence of an enormous talent. In candor, not all of what Peia does works for me, but November’s album of the month is a place where originality, moxie, and beauty found a muse who is herself a force of nature. 

Rob Weir