“I’m pregnant,” Mildred (Ruth Negga) tells Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) in Loving‘s opening line. “Good,” he replies, a shy smile creeping over his face. “That’s real good.” So good, in fact, that they travel out of Virginia’s Caroline County up to Washington, D.C., in order to get married.
They have to travel to Washington because they live in Virginia, where miscegenation laws render their coupling illegal. We get a taste of what that means upon their return to the Birthplace of Presidents, as local cops stake out, and then arrest, the newlyweds. Director Jeff Nichols shoots the scene like something out of a horror movie: cops park their cars on a tree-lined road in the pre-dawn murk, moving silently but with purpose, their faces cloaked in shadow. They approach the house and then kick the door in, blinding the couple with flashlights, looming over them with menace in their faces.
Nichols and the actors bring the appropriate level of gravity to a tale that calls to mind life in a police state. Edgerton’s Richard is a modest, deferential sort; he knows what is happening is wrong, but would rather simply move to Washington with his wife and kids than take on the system. Negga’s face betrays the strain of a country girl forced to move into the city; there’s a sadness in Mildred’s eyes as she looks at the pathetic strips of wilted grass and under-grown trees lining their D.C. street. And Marton Csokas brings the perfect level of casual cruelty to Sheriff Brooks. When he says he’ll split Richard’s head open and arrest Mildred’s whole family if they don’t surrender, you believe him.
For the first hour, maybe hour and fifteen minutes, Loving is an excellent, straightforward, period drama. And then … well, then the comic actor Nick Kroll shows up. Kroll is playing Bernard Cohen, a lawyer for the ACLU who wants to help the Lovings fight Virginia’s laws against race-mixing. It’s like he’s parachuting in from another film, one whose actors mug for the camera, roll their eyes as characters walk off screen for the audience’s benefit, and stretch their plastic grins to unnatural lengths, hamming it up. Now, I quite like Kroll, but when he appeared I literally—physically—recoiled from the screen. I may have even muttered “The Douche!” out loud.
Every time he was onscreen the tone of the film changed. It was jarring. But Nichols is a skilled enough director to understand just how much Kroll alters the film and alters audience perceptions of it, so it must have been done intentionally. And I think what he is getting at by adding Kroll’s comedic mug is to highlight the utter absurdity of the Lovings being forced to use the courts to justify their relationship.
For instance, Kroll’s Cohen—in his nasally and somewhat nastily jocular timbre—tells Richard that it’s a “great honor” to be heard before the Supreme Court. He seems surprised that the shy son of the soil would want to skip oral arguments. But Cohen’s surprise and his wheedling, condescending tone are, at best, crass, given that just moments before he had told Richard that the state would argue his children would’ve been better off never existing than born to parents of different races.
Manchester by the Sea unfolds slowly, doling out information about its characters in a leisurely fashion over its 137-minute running time.
We open with janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as he makes his rounds, watching him stop up leaks and change light bulbs and fix toilets. He’s short with the residents and even shorter with patrons in a bar later on, throwing punches at some bankers who look at him wrong and ignoring the entreaties of a young woman who wants to know him a bit better.
He returns to his hometown, Manchester, after his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack. We see Joe in flashbacks—he and Lee out on the water with Joe’s son, Patrick (Ben O’Brien as a little boy in the flashbacks; Lucas Hedges as a teenager in the present); the family learning of Joe’s diagnosis of congestive heart failure; Joe trying to help Lee cope with a tragedy’s aftermath precipitating Lee’s fleeing his home—that help us reveal why Joe wrote Lee into his will as Patrick’s guardian.
Manchester by the Sea is an actor’s showcase, and every bit of Oscar buzz Casey Affleck is getting is entirely deserved. We can see that there’s something broken inside of him long before we learn exactly what or why, giving the tragic revelation from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan an added oomph when it is finally delivered. As others have noted, Affleck is at his best when he plays quiet, trapped sort of figures: the titular cur in The Assassination Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or the abandoned son whose children are choking on dust in Interstellar.
Lonergan’s script and direction are pleasingly subtle, studded with nice little moments that help us understand the characters and help them understand each other. One that keeps coming back to me is Lee’s display of three picture frames—we never see whose faces they hold but we intuitively know who they are, three totems that once seen by Patrick soften his hard attitude toward his uncle as the film comes to its conclusion.
Manchester by the Sea is a brief for the belief that not every broken being can be fixed, which is, perhaps, why it left me feeling a bit cold inside. I admire the work done by the actors, the script’s structure, the careful editing and direction—but, like Lee, Manchester by the Sea resists being loved.
It’s gauche and awful and anti-criticism and anti-art and playing right into the hands of Big Awards to describe everything in terms of Oscar potential. But we live in the world we live in, so allow me to say, just briefly, that there is no justice in the world if Mahershala Ali does not get a best supporting actor nod for Moonlight.
Between Free State of Jones—in which Ali plays a freed slave who discovers that life isn’t any easier in the South after the Civil War—and Moonlight, Ali has put together two of the best supporting performances of the year. Free State isn’t likely to get much recognition (nor should it), but Moonlight is among the most-buzzed-about films of the year. And, honestly, it only really works as well as it does because of Ali’s performance in the film’s opening third.
Divided into three portions—titled “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” the names adopted by the protagonist as he journeys from little boy to grown man—Moonlight is at its best in the early going. Ali plays Juan, a Miami crack dealer who opens his doors to Little (Alex R. Hibbert) when he sees the boy being chased through the streets by a gang of toughs.
On paper, Juan is an almost silly figure: an amazingly enlightened drug dealer who seeks to help the young gay boy find his way through life, who wants Little to accept himself for who he is despite the beatings and the taunts and the lack of love from a strung-out junkie of a mother. But Ali brings a quiet fortitude to the role. You can see the internal conflict rippling across his face as he asks Little’s mother what she’s doing getting high in a car on the street while her baby boy suffers at home.
Ali’s personality is magnetic, almost overwhelming, and the film suffers from his absence in later segments, during which we see Chiron (Ashton Sanders) engage in his first sexual experience and Black (Trevante Rhodes) trying to navigate life as a drug dealer molded in Juan’s image.
Elle, the latest from Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct), could have been titled On Decadence. In lieu of a traditional review, allow me the indulgence of simply explaining the relationships of each of the characters.
Elle (Isabelle Huppert), in the film’s opening moments, is raped by an unknown assailant. She demands the characters in the video games her company designs show a greater level of ecstasy when they are raped by demons; Elle’s partner is Anna (Anne Consigny), with whom she has experimented sexually and whose husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), she is sleeping with. Robert is jealous because Elle attempts to seduce the overtly Christian neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) in front of him (Robert). Elle’s mother, Irene (Judith Magre), is trying to begin her third marriage, this one to a male escort. Elle owns her mother’s apartment and is willing to give her son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), enough money to pay for several months’ rent for he and his pregnant girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz) to move in together. Needless to say, the baby is not Vincent’s, though he refuses to believe this. Perhaps even more needless to say, the rapist, whom Elle falls in love with, is one of these characters.
I dunno, you guys. As a critique of European decadence, it all seems rather, well, a bit on the nose. Like Girls, turned up to 11 and set in France. I know subtlety isn’t really Verhoeven’s thing, but maybe bring it down a notch or two next time?