Arrow Video: The Loveless (1982) - Reviewed

Years before becoming the first female filmmaker to win the Academy Award for Best Director for 2008’s The Hurt Locker, writer-director Kathryn Bigelow first burst onto the cinema scene in 1982 with her collaborative effort with one-time co-director Monty Montgomery.  Montgomery would later go on to become a frequent executive producer (and occasional star) of David Lynch films including Wild at Heart, but in 1982 Montgomery and Bigelow were newcomers.  With their debut film, the outlaw biker period drama The Loveless, viewers got an early look not only at a major filmmaking talent in the developmental stages but also got to feast their eyes upon the credited acting debut of one of the industry’s finest and most beloved performers: Willem Dafoe.

Set in the late 1950s US, The Loveless is an ensemble piece largely lead by Dafoe concerning a motorcycle gang who roll into a small southern town on their way to the Daytona races.  The band of outsiders are immediately seen as riff-raff by the locals who don’t take kindly to their boorish and vandalistic behavior.  Tensions, however, risk exploding through the roof when biker Vance (Willem Dafoe) develops romantic relations with local girl Telena (Marin Kanter), stirring the rage of her abusive and drunken father.  Much like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the film plays like a day in the lives of the ensemble cast of characters before it becomes apparent everyone is sitting on a ticking time bomb waiting to detonate. 

Willem Dafoe is a legend by now and seeing him so young at such an early stage of his career in The Loveless marks the arrival of one of the silver screen’s greatest performers.  Driven by nuance, subtlety and just enough alpha-male sex appeal to draw comparisons to Marlon Brando’s own The Wild One, Dafoe makes Vance both the film’s hero and as much of a fly on the wall as the viewer.  Dafoe knows full well who he is from the ground up and yet finds himself wanting less and less involvement with the group he’s in.  A strong and tragic counterpoint to Dafoe’s doomed existence on the road is Marin Kanter as the local rich neighborhood girl he meets on the way.  Where most everyone else sees Dafoe’s character as adversarial, she sees the vulnerability and might be the only real way out for Dafoe.

Visually, Bigelow’s first is handsomely lensed by Doyle Smith, capturing the rugged terrain of the small southern town beautifully though Bigelow’s next project uniting her with James Cameron cinematographer Adam Greenberg would drastically alter and forever shape the look we’ve come to expect from her films.  The film’s other quasi-main character, Davis, happens to be played by the film’s composer, Robert Gordon, who provides a moody period score coupled with subtle additional contributions by John Lurie.  The result is a deeply southern fried score which perfectly suits the setting and mood of the film.

Fans of Bigelow’s celebrated vampire film Near Dark will pick up on her fixations immediately in The Loveless, focusing on dangerous outcast men typically within a biker gang and the ways with which an enclosed group of people can ignite a violent outburst.  Though steeped in the 1950s, watching The Loveless and it’s biker greasers will no doubt remind some viewers of Penelope Spheeris’ punk rock documentary classic The Decline of Western Civilization.  Though lacking the punch felt in her subsequent feature Near Dark, Bigelow’s first feature turn in the director’s chair cements her as an identifiable cinematic voice keenly interested in what makes the male outlaw tick.

-Andrew Kotwicki