Friday , October 20 2017

Power of true love in ‘Loving’ – Gibson roars back with bruising ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

In this Oct 22, 2016 photo, Ruth Negga (left), and Joel Edgerton pose during a portrait session to promote their film, ‘Loving’ in Los Angeles. (AP)
In this Oct 22, 2016 photo, Ruth Negga (left), and Joel Edgerton pose during a portrait session to promote their film, ‘Loving’ in Los Angeles. (AP)

Jeff Nichols’ “Loving”, about Richard and Mildred Loving, is about simple-minded people, simply being in love.

Both born and raised in the hills of Central Point, Virginia, the Lovings wed in 1958. But five weeks later, while Mildred was pregnant, they were roused from their bed at 2 am by a Caroline County sheriff, put in jail and later ordered out of the state for 25 years.

In Nichols’ tender, graceful film, a love story progresses naturally, beautifully, with sudden, surreal interruptions — like the middle-of-the-night arrest — that play like abductions. And that’s essentially what they were. Richard was white and Mildred was black, and that was enough to make their marriage a crime in 1958 Virginia.

The Lovings would, after years raising their family in Washington DC, spark the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling, Loving v. Virginia, that unanimously struck down all anti-miscegenation laws and declared marriage an inherent right.

But “Loving” has none of the familiar dramatics of a social justice narrative. It’s about civil rights revolutionaries who weren’t in the slightest revolutionary. The only time “civil rights” is uttered in the film is when a relative of Mildred’s advises, while watching Martin Luther King march in far-off Washington: “You need to get you some civil rights” — like she was suggesting a new carburetor.

Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a taciturn bricklayer, with a buzz cut that would look conservative in the Army. Mildred (Ruth Negga), too, is meek, with big, soulful eyes that belie a quiet inner strength. They’re poor, little educated and overwhelmingly humble. Edgerton and Negga spend a significant part of the film with downcast eyes, too modest to insist on anything except to be left alone. Richard wants to build them a home in a field half a mile from where Mildred grew up. Mildred wants Richard’s mom to deliver her children.

Harsh

They aren’t chatty people. When, in the film’s first scene, Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant, his face is at first stoic, and we fear a harsh response. But then comes a smile, huge and warm, and the answer, “Good.”

The movie is spoken largely in their faces and their intimate, telling gestures: arms draped around one another, a head laid on the shoulder of another. The body language comes directly from the tremendous photos taken of the couple by Grey Villet for Life Magazine , as well as the 16mm black-and-white footage shot by Hope Ryden, a central component of Nancy Buirski’s 2012 documentary, “The Loving Story.”

The force of Nichols’ film is a steadily accumulating one. The Lovings, played with exquisite quietude by Negga and Edgerton, are steadfast and pure — arguably to such a degree as to risk stiffness. Even as their case swells with out-of-town lawyers and the potential to make history, they are little affected by the gravity. They don’t go to hear the Supreme Court hearing; “Tell the judge I love my wife”, is Richard’s complete message to his attorney.

But the absence of larger histrionics is what gives “Loving” its understated power. Nichols, the talented Arkansas native who made “Mud” and “Take Shelter”, has stood out, in part, for his good-sense restraint as a filmmaker. His rural landscapes are richly American, with soil running through their fingers. His protagonists are soft-spoken, and the deeper truths all interior and unknowable.

In “Loving”, the full impact isn’t felt until the final words, ones that will stay with moviegoers after the lights have come up. Remembering her husband years after his later death, Mildred is quoted with fitting — and no less moving — simplicity. “I miss him. He took care of me.”

“Loving”, a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic elements.” Running time: 123 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

 Is “Hacksaw Ridge” Mel Gibson’s redemption? Is it his atonement, or perhaps his miracle?

Don’t worry, we won’t be making any such weighty theological pronouncements — though these terms have all been bandied about in the run-up to Gibson’s first directorial effort in the 10 years since “Apocalypto.” That movie came out in 2006, only a few months after news broke of Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic rant, which has plagued his career ever since.

But “Hacksaw Ridge”, the latest contribution to the canon of big World War II films, doesn’t need any redemptive backstory. Whatever you think of Gibson, and whatever your position on the relevance of his personal flaws to his art, his filmmaking prowess is evident. This big, bruising, viscerally violent yet also often moving film should be judged on its merits.

“Hacksaw Ridge”, starring the goofily appealing Andrew Garfield as the real-life character Desmond Doss, may not be a perfect movie, but it strikes an unusual balance. It’s a violent film whose hero — and moral core — espouses non-violence. It’s a war film that will also appeal to a faith-based audience. It’s a film that at moments can feel relentlessly corny — and a second later, painfully, horribly real.

Exploits

Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist, was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. An Army medic, he refused to touch a weapon, believing he should be saving lives and not taking them. Though his exploits are a matter of record, we won’t spill all the details here.

After an early introduction to Doss as a boy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, we pick up in young adulthood. When war breaks out with Japan, the young man feels compelled to enlist, despite the objections of his loving but abusive father (an excellent Hugo Weaving), a World War I veteran who was ruined by the experience. Doss is also going against the wishes of his new fiancee, Dorothy (fresh-faced Teresa Palmer), who begs him to stay. (The couple’s meet-cute scenes are charming but extremely retro and not a little corny.)

Doss arrives at training camp, eager to serve. But when he won’t touch a rifle, his superiors are aghast. “Private Doss does not believe in violence”, taunts one sergeant. “Do not look to him to save your life on the battlefield!”

He’s played by Vince Vaughn, whose approach at first seems too comedic — as if in another movie. But he soon settles into an effectively understated performance.

Doss is pressured to leave the army — subjected to beatings, harassment, ultimately a court-martial — and only survives due to dramatic intervention from on high. And then it’s on to Japan, to Okinawa and specifically the brutal battle at Hacksaw Ridge, high up on a punishing cliff where untold horrors await.

It is here that Gibson’s hand is the surest. The suddenness which with death arrives in combat, the unfathomable randomness of it all, a man’s jaunty bravado crumbling into paralyzing fear — the director sugar-coats nothing. As the men first climb toward their enemy, they pass their fallen comrades. Some corpses are in parts. Some have maggots crawling out of them.

It is during this battle that Doss becomes a hero, finding a way to save countless men by persevering when most others have been forced to retreat. He is guided by his faith; at one point, he asks God out loud what is expected of him. Garfield knows how to make such a scene feel honest — no easy feat.

Many fact-based movies end with some real-life footage. It’s always welcome, but here, it’s truly exciting to see Doss, alive and speaking (he died in 2006). His is a story you probably didn’t know, and will be glad you did. Gibson does well by it.

“Hacksaw Ridge”, a Lionsgate release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images.” Running time: 138 minutes. Three stars out of four. (AP)

By Jake Coyle

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