Though he could scarcely be accused of making the same movie twice, Jeff Nichols has established a set of cinematic themes and preoccupations as consistent as those of any American writer-director working today. Stories of the rural South, rich in mythic undertones and the odd apocalyptic portent. Families that come under threat. Brooding, laconic men of action, usually played by Michael Shannon. Fiercely resilient women. Immaculate visual and rhythmic control. And, as seen in the recent “Midnight Special,” many, many shots of people behind the wheel, often at night.
There are a few of those signature nocturnal driving scenes in “Loving,” Nichols’ second film of 2016, his second film to premiere in competition at Cannes (after “Mud” in 2012), and in some ways both his least typical and his most emblematic work to date. It tells the fact-based story of Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton), a Virginia couple whose mixed-race marriage — he was white, she was black — challenged the social expectations of the era and ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s 1967 civil rights decision against the prohibition of interracial marriage.
It sounds like prime Oscar-bait on paper. And sure enough, the film’s well-received press screening had barely ended before the first wave of awards handicapping erupted on Twitter — much of it focused on how the radiant Negga will singlehandedly dispel the curse of #OscarSoWhite. Maybe she will. But I’d like to think at least some of the film’s applause was in appreciation of how largely un-baity it plays on screen, some overly insistent musical cues aside. It’s the sort of movie whose flaws and familiarities wind up revealing its maker’s strengths: Nichols’ direction is clear-eyed and restrained, almost to a fault, and he refuses every opportunity to grandstand.
In this he is operating very much in line with his characters, whom we never once hear extolling the importance of what they’re doing, or raising their voices or fists to those trying to tear their family apart. Nichols keeps the Lovings front and center, cutting away only when he must. When Richard refuses to attend the Supreme Court hearings and listen to the state’s noxious arguments on the dangers of miscegenation, the film honors his decision and keeps its distance as well. Nichols seems almost relieved at being able to skip the usual courtroom histrionics.
The Lovings’ struggle is one of quiet, incremental persistence, their bond a force as permanent and elemental as the sun-kissed Virginia fields where they strive to make their home. The applicability of their story to America’s ongoing marriage-equality debate is implicit but goes entirely unmentioned. Specificity, self-control and humility are the hallmarks of Nichols’ approach.
Negga and Edgerton are both outstanding, and at times their characters’ mutual devotion acquires an almost comic tinge. Mildred gently takes the lead in most of their decisions, smiling agreeably as a lawyer (a slightly jarring Nick Kroll) steers them this way and that, while Richard frowns in silence, his spirit willing but his mouth frozen in a pucker of revolt. Edgerton is playing one of Nichols’ quintessentially decent, inarticulate men, the kind of guy usually played by his “Midnight Special” co-star Michael Shannon, who turns up here as a friendly Life magazine photographer assigned to show the world who the Lovings really are.
Which is, in the end, the goal of Nichols’ film as well. Richard and Mildred are not the most vigorous or demonstrative of protagonists, which makes “Loving” feel at once scrupulously honest and dramatically under-powered. That seems to suit Nichols just fine. The unalloyed perfection of his characters’ relationship may not make for the most urgent drama, but it makes their moral high ground that much more unassailable. The final shot underscores perhaps the overriding theme of Nichols’ work: an urgent yearning to return home, even if it means building one anew.
The Cannes programmers must have seen fit to schedule “Loving” as the second half of a double bill with Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful “Paterson,” another portrait of a happy marriage between a white man and a woman of color. The similarities end there: The characters’ ethnicities go unmentioned in “Paterson,” and the film itself is unlikely to be confused for Oscar-bait anytime soon.
Working in a mode that feels both completely accessible and richly personal, Jarmusch spends two hours observing a week in the humdrum life of a bus driver in Paterson, N.J. Every morning he rises at 6 a.m., eats breakfast, smiles at his wife’s plans for the day (usually involving curtain or cupcake decoration), drives his bus, goes home for dinner, walks their ill-tempered English bulldog (an impudent scene-stealer), and ends the night at a local bar.
The driver is played by Adam Driver, and whether that casting was a happy coincidence or the joke from which the movie’s central conceit arose, we have every reason to be grateful. For the bus driver is not just a bus driver but a poet, scribbling warm, intuitive free-verse observations in a notebook he keeps with him at all times. And “Paterson” itself is a sort of poem — one with its own delicately calibrated internal structure, predicated on a cleverly sustained scheme of rhyme and repetition.
Jarmusch’s screenplay is a marvel of intricate visual and verbal gamesmanship. Mysterious doublings recur throughout: Driver’s driver not only lives in Paterson but also is named Paterson. William Carlos Williams becomes a significant plot device. Lines of dialogue in one scene are replicated, with uncanny accuracy, a few scenes later. Characters from a movie by another American indie darling make a delightful surprise appearance. One of Paterson’s poems invites us to consider the beauty of a book of Ohio Blue Tip matches, and if your brain works the way mine does, you’ll immediately think of “matches” in the other sense, perhaps in stealth reference to the identical twins who keep popping up in the background.
A work of becalmed eccentricity and unforced charm, “Paterson” is a portrait of an artist’s world, and how that world — presented here as recognizably mundane, and yet touched by a sort of cat’s-cradle enchantment — can provide him or her with inspiration, nourishment and an inevitable dose of failure. Driver, whose career from “Girls” to Kylo Ren has been a succession of off-the-wall surprises, gives a performance of great, taciturn melancholy. Sacrificing the boisterous comic personality he brought to movies like “While We’re Young” and “What If” has taken him to soulful new depths as an actor. (Also, if that is indeed his scrawl we see on the screen, he has lovely penmanship.) As his wife, the superb Golshifteh Farahani is a perpetually upbeat figure, comically idealized in ways that somehow only deepen the movie’s wellspring of melancholy.
When it was announced that “Paterson” was Cannes-bound, a colleague warned me that he’d heard it was extremely minor Jarmusch. That didn’t bother me in the slightest: His previous work, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” slipped into Cannes 2013 with little early fanfare and emerged one of the festival’s unexpected highlights. And since the director’s brand of low-wattage indie minimalism has always insisted that we learn to see the beauty in the small and everyday, as well as in the neglected and rarefied, it stands to reason that his “minor effort” might in fact turn out to be the deepest, truest expression of his ethos as an artist.
The tedious common line on Jarmusch is that his filmmaking, like so much poetry, is too idiosyncratic to be savored by more than an appreciative few. The unfashionable wit, delicacy and modesty of “Paterson” would seem to confirm that truism, even as the emotional effect of the film utterly rebukes it. Jarmusch has made a movie for anyone who’s ever felt out of step with the world — which is to say, a movie for everyone.