This time last year, I was feeling pretty gloomy about the future of the movies. With a few notable exceptions, like Birdman or Boyhood, they seemed to be getting not only dumber and more simplistic, but increasingly frenetic. The ever-popular superhero genre infected even supposedly realistic films, with special effect techniques enhancing characters’ movements as Botox and plastic surgery have enhanced their looks. Movies were getting bigger, louder, more colorful, and faster, faster, faster. A study conducted in 2014 and reported in Wired magazine revealed that while the average shot length in English-language films was 12 seconds in 1930, it had declined to about 2.5 seconds at the time of the study. Was this speed a realistic one, based on the shortness of human attention spans? Or was the rapidity of film editing helping in fact to shorten our attention spans?
Now suddenly, in the last few months, there has appeared a significant number of movies that buck the trend in the most startling manner. What’s more, they are not fringe films but those that have been receiving the greatest critical acclaim, even garnering the most Oscar buzz, and doing so by going against formula in a way that can only be described as courageous. As screenwriter and director Jeff Nichols put it when he pitched his vision of Loving to Martin Scorsese, “I want to make a film about marriage, about two people who really don’t talk much, with actors who aren’t big stars. So, I want to make this completely unsuccessful film. Are you with me?”
Loving and several other films of this season tell their stories in long shots and at a startlingly unhurried pace. Instead of laboring to fill every moment with incident and business, their directors embrace silence, reaction, and gesture. The films are mood pieces as much as narratives, and the plots, however well crafted, seem in retrospect the least important part of the viewing experience.
Is it only a momentary trend, or does it amount to a movement, a declaration of artistic independence from the mainstream Hollywood trend of more, faster, louder? One might compare it with the so-called “Slow Food” movement that was founded in Italy in 1986 and has subsequently spread around the world. The Slow Movie movement is bringing silence and reflection back to the moviegoing experience. It is also, in the process, rediscovering the human face. Like filmmakers of the classic Hollywood era—even, perhaps, like the great silent directors —these Slow Movie auteurs linger on the actor’s visage, taking the time to register subtle shifts of emotion that have been lost in the long and ruthless march of the Fast Movies.
Certain Women, written and directed by Kelly Reichardt, based on short stories from Maile Meloy’s collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, is made up of three tangentially linked stories that take place in the mid-sized town of Livingston, Montana. The actual town’s website claims that “With a good school system and many city parks presenting pedestrian and bicycle friendly paths and walkways, Livingston is a great place to raise a family.” But as presented by Reichardt, Livingston is a brooding, bleak place, the purple mountains in the distance hard and forbidding, the town itself temporary-looking, shoddy, makeshift.
The American West is usually imagined as a masculine backdrop to ultra-masculine stars—think John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, even Heath Ledger. In this movie, though, women are in the foreground. The landscape, however magnificent, does not appear to nourish them; they are alienated, isolated. We first see Laura, an attorney (Laura Dern), in bed, leaning back against a pillow as, with a certain emotional distance, she watches her not very appealing lover (James Le Gros) getting dressed. The roughness of the landscape is reflected in her face, which is harsh, uncompromisingly lined. When she gets dressed to return to the office, she can’t even be bothered to tuck her sweater properly into her skirt; her tacky surroundings simply don’t merit the attention, and neither does the client who is waiting for her.
This is Fuller (Jared Harris), a middle-aged man sidelined by a workplace injury for which he has long been trying, in vain, to receive financial compensation. Laura has explained his legal position to him again and again—the employers are not obliged to recompense him—but he cannot bring himself to believe it until she takes him to see a male lawyer, a specialist in personal injury.
A less subtle filmmaker would take this chance to deliver an obvious feminist message, but Reichardt doesn’t feel the need to hammer the point home; we get it, and that’s enough. Laura herself accepts Fuller’s unconscious prejudice, if a little sourly. Soon the situation descends into melodrama-cum-farce as the desperate Fuller takes a hostage at gunpoint. Again, Reichardt does not harp on the pathos of the situation; it’s obvious enough, and in the end Fuller has enough humor to see the comedy in his own pitiful life.
The second tale involves Gina (Michelle Williams), who is married to Ryan, the man Laura was sleeping with. There’s not much plot here; we simply go along with Gina as she plans the house she and Ryan are building (“She wants to make it authentic,” Ryan says), and she tries to fathom the passive-aggressive Ryan and their snarky, spoiled teenage daughter (Sara Rodier). We don’t know the backstory of the marriage, and we don’t know what makes the family atmosphere so patently melancholy; all we can do is pick up whatever faint clues we find in the small details of Gina’s life and her mobile, expressive face.
But the outstanding performance in Certain Women comes from the unknown Lily Gladstone, who plays Jamie, a Native American worker on an isolated ranch who becomes smitten with Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), a law student who travels once a week from Livingston to the small town of Belfry to teach a night class on educational law. Stewart, who with her clear features and trademark scowl has an iconic face in the great Hollywood tradition, here is unkempt and mousy; it is the moon-faced Gladstone, with her pure, intense visage, that we can’t tear our eyes away from. As she goes through her solitary and repetitive daily routine and travels once a week to sit in on Elizabeth’s uninspiring class, the force of her infatuation carries the film; a scene in which she gives Elizabeth a ride on her horse focuses entirely on that broad, quietly expressive face, animated with love and pride.
Loving, the film Jeff Nichols feared might be “completely unsuccessful,” also relies on tone, gesture, and nuance to get across its message. This is particularly striking given the subject matter, for there is a classic, oft-used Hollywood formula to fit the plot, and most mainstream directors would have found it hard to resist. The film tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple in rural Virginia whose 1967 Supreme Court case resulted in the end of miscegenation laws throughout the United States. Richard, a white man, and Mildred, of African and Native American ancestry, married in 1958. Five weeks after their legal wedding in Washington, D.C., by then back in Virginia, they were awakened in the middle of the night when the county sheriff and two deputies burst into their bedroom and arrested them. They pleaded guilty to the state’s Racial Integrity Act and were permitted to flee back to D.C. rather than spend the usual year in jail. In the end they spent several years in the city with their three children. In 1967, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Mildred wrote a letter to Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General, asking for help. He forwarded the missive to the ACLU, who assigned the Lovings a lawyer, Bernie Cohen. And the rest is history.
Doesn’t it sound just like a Hollywood picture with a classic Hollywood ending? If Stephen Spielberg, let’s say, were to do it, you could predict the details. Richard Loving would be played by someone like the young Tom Hanks, with a candid, open face. The offending sheriff would be a crude redneck (remember Carroll O’Connor in In the Heat of the Night?) who threatened the couple physically; the arrest scene in the bedroom would be terrifying, probably accompanied by snarling dogs. The Jewish ACLU lawyer would be a smart-talking guy with a heart of gold. The scene at the Supreme Court would build to an emotional crescendo, with dramatic, cathartic music after the decision was announced. Bobby Kennedy would appear personally to congratulate the happy couple.
None of these things, thankfully, happen: Nichols has made an honest and extremely affecting film which finds beauty in understatement, reflecting the shy, private people who the real Lovings apparently were. In the film, as in real life, they are poor, uneducated, exceedingly modest. Their experience, until their flight to Washington, is limited to the tobacco fields and shacks of their native Caroline County. It is a deeply rural community in which the races mix freely in spite of Jim Crow; Nichols subverts expectations by presenting no racial violence. The sheriff (Marton Csokas), though he is indeed sinister, with his talk about God’s plan to keep the races separate, is not physically threatening and shows no extralegal vengefulness or brutality. The judge they see (David Jensen) is clement, so far as the laws permit. The Jewish lawyer (the comical Nick Kroll) is not particularly idealistic; mostly he is just ambitious to make his name by arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court. Bobby Kennedy makes no appearance whatever. And most surprisingly, we do not witness the Supreme Court scene: instead, we get the news of the victory with Mildred, from a simple, undramatic phone call.
Like Kelly Reichardt, Jeff Nichols builds emotion by lingering on the expressive faces of his stars—in this case, Ruth Negga as Mildred and Joel Edgerton as Richard. Edgerton, a native of Australia, like his countryman Heath Ledger, has done a remarkable job at internalizing not only American speech patterns but American body language; the norms of Southern masculinity are all encapsulated in his awkward grace. Negga, an Ethiopian-born Irish actress, has, like Lily Gladstone, an unforgettable face; the camera dwells on it at length, and one never tires of watching her register and process emotion.
One of the many traps Nichols has avoided in this film is the tempting one of making his heroes noble. In fact, these two are only as noble as any decent people might be under the same circumstances. The Lovings are not outstandingly brave; they are nervous when they are approached by the ACLU lawyer, who advises them to move back to Virginia so as to reactivate the case, unwilling to risk rearrest, and their horizons are too narrow for them to consider the difference their actions might make for thousands of other interracial couples. They don’t even appear to be particularly intelligent; they hate Washington and long to get back to peaceful, rural Virginia, but it never seems to occur to them that there are other rural places where they could live together legally. They are ordinary people propelled unwillingly into the public gaze. Nichols treats their very ordinariness, their modesty and humility, with humanistic respect.
The stunning Moonlight, one of the best pictures I have seen in recent years, also foregoes melodrama in favor of close attention to character and finds true drama in quiet, apparently mundane exchanges; like Nichols, its writer/director Barry Jenkins eschews the clichés that seem to adhere in the film’s subject matter—in this case, young black men caught up in a world of crime and drugs. The film moves at a gentle pace, working against the viewer’s cultural assumptions and cinematic expectations, to achieve an emotional intensity that is never, at any point, cheaply bought.
Barry Jenkins was alerted to Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by a friend who knew that Jenkins himself came from exactly the world McCraney was writing about. Both men had grown up in Liberty City, Miami; both had mothers who were drug addicts. They had even attended the same school. The play’s protagonist, Chiron (pronounced Shy-rone), was gay, unlike Jenkins, but in other ways their experiences were very close. Jenkins began considering ways in which the play, with its nonlinear plotting, could be turned into a film, and he decided to tell the story in what is essentially a three-act structure. In the first part, Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert) is a small boy, about nine or ten years old; in the second, a teenager (Ashton Sanders); in the third, a man who appears to be about thirty (Trevante Rhodes). The three actors did not meet until after the film was made, and they look nothing alike, a fact that did not bother Jenkins, who wanted his casting to demonstrate that the harshness of Chiron’s world has the power to change a young man radically. “I really wanted them to be different people,” he has said of the three Chirons. “Same character, different people. But there was this spiritual, cosmic connection through the eyes.”
The camera does, indeed, linger on these expressive sets of eyes. Jenkins describes his search for actors who could emote without speaking, for men in Chiron’s world are encouraged to be hyper-masculine; they are not accustomed to talking about their feelings, or much of anything else. Facial expressions, as in the two other films I’ve discussed here, are of paramount importance: rather than moving from one plot point to the next, Jenkins concentrates on significant moments and moves in for the close-up.
The atmosphere and technique is established in the very first scene, in which a circling camera captures a meeting between a streetside drug dealer and his boss, the big man of that Miami neighborhood, Juan (Mahershala Ali of House of Cards fame, in a moving performance). The dealer disposes of an importunate junkie, and Juan greets him with an elaborate handshake, then stands passing the time of day with him. He asks after the dealer’s mother, who appears to have been ill. “She in my prayers,” Juan assures the boy.
This immediate humanization of a figure who in most films would be fearsome sets the tone for the entire film. Juan, despite his odious profession, is a kind man who takes the lonely little Chiron under his wing; he provides the only good parenting the boy will ever know. And indeed there are no real villains in the film, except for a high school bully who probably learned his cruelty through hard knocks of his own. Chiron’s mother, a casual drug taker who descends during the first two parts of the movie into nearly hopeless addiction, is sometimes frightening, but she is treated with pity and, in the end, dignity. Chiron’s opposite number is Kevin, a schoolmate (played in turn by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and the wonderful André Holland). He is a foil for the tense, yearning Chiron, cheerfully and philosophically taking life as it comes. It is with Kevin that the sixteen-year-old Chiron has his first sexual experience; Chiron has probably not until this point acknowledged his own sexual orientation, and probably not afterward either —such an uncomfortable fact can hardly enter into his worldview at this point.
What happens in the years between each of the film’s three “acts” is as important as what we see onscreen. An important death that takes place in the first interim is referred to only fleetingly. The tremendous physical transformation in Chiron that happens between the second and third acts has great emotional implications: the skinny youth has pumped himself up and donned a do-rag, turning himself into a startling replica of Juan. In the same time period, Kevin has fathered a child, done time in prison, and become a cook in a Cuban restaurant. The life paths of these two men, however different, have led them to the transcendent last scene, in which Chiron, at long last, allows himself to express his pain and love.
Jenkins makes brilliant use of music to highlight emotion: not only Nicholas Brittel’s fine score, but familiar and evocative pieces like Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger,” Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead,” and Mozart’s “Vesperae Solennes de Confessore.” In his superb film Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan does the same, using music either to enhance emotion or to play against it. And as with Moonlight, the feelings are very, very strong.
In Lonergan’s film, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is living an isolated life as a janitor/handyman in an apartment block in Boston, exiled from his hometown of Manchester by the Sea, where his ex-wife (Michelle Williams), his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), a commercial fisherman, and Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) still live. We realize that there has been a tragedy in his past; it would be unfair to reveal what it is in a review, but it was a truly terrible one, for which Lee was responsible.
Lee’s life is now grim but more or less stable—a round of shoveling snow, unclogging toilets, avoiding sexually aggressive women tenants, and getting drunk and having the occasional fight in a local bar. Then his brother Joe dies of heart disease, and Lee has to go back to Manchester. Who will take care of sixteen-year-old Patrick? Patrick’s mother, an alcoholic, has long since disappeared from the scene, and it turns out that Joe has left money and instructions in his will that Lee should move back to Manchester and be the boy’s guardian.
Another classic Hollywood setup. We can predict, can’t we, that the life-affirming, resilient Patrick will somehow bring Lee back to the land of the living and effect a cure of sorts? We’ve seen it happen before. But that is not at all the film Lonergan was interested in making. Not everyone, he knew, has a Hollywood ending; some people are so damaged that they can never recover. There just aren’t so many movies about people like that.
All this makes Manchester by the Sea sound like the most depressing movie ever made, and yes, it is a heartbreaker, but it’s also robust and surprisingly funny. Lonergan is of the tragicomic school—he is well aware that the conventional dramatic division between tragedies and comedies is an artificial one: throughout our lives, sad events are continually undercut by the ludicrous, and the funniest proceedings tend to be based in something rather dark. Even in his frozen state, Lee shows remnants of humor, and Lucas Hedges’s Patrick provides a bracing, comical presence. (This film should turn Hedges into a major star.) A scene in which the two of them are yelling obscenities at one another outside of their parked car and a passer-by (played by Lonergan himself) sanctimoniously remarks, “Nice parenting” had the audience roaring with laughter. And the laughter, curiously enough, makes the painful scenes all the more bitter by contrast. One of the saddest things in the film is our growing awareness that Lee and Patrick are actually extremely compatible—even, in their undemonstrative way, loving—but that their partnership is probably impossible.
Lonergan excels at this mixing-up of emotions. Music is key. His pacing of the film’s most tragic scene in time with Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor is brilliantly done even if the music has been used in films before. His use of “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd” from Handel’s Messiah over the footage of Joe’s funeral is devastating; the comfort promised in this exquisite piece will never be forthcoming for Lee. The choice of this most beautiful of devotional pieces is clearly ironic, for the world Lonergan has created here is a godless and unforgiving one: for some, there will never be any comfort. The “Christian” people in the film—Patrick’s errant mother (Gretchen Mol), now on the wagon and born again, and her slightly creepy new husband (Lonergan’s boyhood friend Matthew Broderick, in a bit part)—obviously don’t have the answers. When Patrick describes the couple to Lee as “Christian, very Christian,” Lee reminds the boy that as Catholics, they are Christian too. “I’m aware of that,” Patrick retorts. But none of the Chandlers looks to the church for consolation, and the implication is that it would be pointless if they did.
The modest subtlety with which each of these auteurs has presented their films is fine and fitting for the sort of characters whose stories they have related: members, for the most part, of the American working class, with its laconism, its distrust of complex language and expressed emotion, and its faith, however misplaced, in the value of tough self-reliance. The saddest moment in Loving is when Richard, in tears, promises Ruth he can take care of her, while both she and the viewer are aware that he can do nothing of the sort. The saddest moment in Moonlight is at the end, when the muscular, brawny, rather frightening-looking Chiron informs Kevin that no one has physically touched him since their sexual encounter some fifteen years previously. Self-reliance, that great American value, is not all it’s cracked up to be, and its false elevation in our culture cheats us of the comfort we should be able to take from one another.