The best opening scene of any 2016 movie begins with a young black woman’s face softly illuminated on a porch. It is night. She looks nervous. “I’m pregnant,” she says, and glances at her companion to see how he’s taking it. The man has cropped blond hair, a thick, slightly coarse face of the kind that wouldn’t look out of place pumping gas. He absorbs the information slowly, a puzzled look on his face. The woman sits waiting in anguish. Finally he breaks into a big, proud grin. “Good,” he says.
And there you have Loving, director Jeff Nichols’s powerfully understated drama about the Virginia couple Richard and Mildred Loving, whose fight in the late ’60s to keep their marriage intact went to the Supreme Court, where it struck down Jim Crow laws against mixed-race marriages. There is probably a bigger, angrier, preachier version of this movie out there somewhere. Nichols has not made it. His film, a front-runner in several Oscar categories, including best actress for Ruth Negga as Mildred, sides with the very normalcy that was taken from the Lovings. It’s a portrait of a marriage. The changing-the-course-of-the-nation stuff is a happy extra.
The 37-year-old Arkansas native first gained attention for his 2011 movie, Take Shelter, about an Ohio husband racked by forebodings of cosmic catastrophe, which won the Critics Week award at Cannes. Then came Mud, a critically lauded but underseen Southern fable starring Matthew McConaughey as a roguish drifter. Nichols makes films the way Raymond Carver used to write sentences—direct, spare, immediate, fluid, shaved to the bone.
“I’ll have these ideas that are really mainstream ideas, that belong to my upbringing, which was movies from the ’80s and suburban white kid culture,” Nichols says at his office in Austin. “I take them and put them through this filter of place, specifically the American South, and they become more tactile for me.” The youngest of three brothers whose father was a furniture store owner in Little Rock, Nichols studied filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. When he told his father that his first screenplay would be about New York mobsters, his dad suggested he write instead about “a place you know that others don’t.” Nichols’s films often mix supernatural elements (gifted kids, intimations of apocalypse) with the trailer homes, pickup trucks, and Kmarts of the South and Midwest—Spielberg by way of Cormac McCarthy. When meteors strike in Midnight Special, his sci-fi film from earlier this year, they scorch a gas station as dusty and lonesome as anything Edward Hopper ever painted.
With his methodical manner and quiet confidence, Nichols is the polar opposite of your usual Sundance-conquering indie brat. That, combined with his films’ critical success and modest budgets, has allowed him to hang on to final cut—almost unheard of in today’s Hollywood. He’s a minimalist in a maximalist culture. He uses genre elements, which hint, almost in silhouette, at the brasher film he could have made. “Jeff is not one of those directors who goes out on location and shoots large amounts of footage, and then runs back to the edit room and decides how he’s going to pack his lunch box,” says Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard Loving and also starred in Midnight Special. “He’s seen the movie play out in his head, and he pretty much hits the center of the dartboard.” In theaters November 4; focusfeatures.com.