3.5 out of 5 stars

“To me, this endless blacktop is my sweet eternity. I knew I was going to hell in a breadbasket.” With these words, we’re introduced to Vance (Willem Dafoe), a soft-spoken loner with a motorcycle and a lot of misanthropy in Kathryn Bigelow’s debut film, The Loveless (1981). Bigelow and co-director Monty Montgomery aimed to do for biker films what Terence Malick’s Badlands (1973) did for Bonnie and Clyde—searching for meaning in the gaps between the action.

Like that Malick classic, The Loveless is molasses slow, punctuated by long stretches of silence, and overflowing with beauty and precise period detail. Dafoe, in his cinematic debut as Vance, lurches through the film as if through a dream, bathed in neon with a cigarette always dangling from his mouth. If the film surrounding him is more than a little slight, it’s no less a staggering and deeply assured first impression. With their debut, Bigelow and Montgomery crafted an elliptical mood piece that’s frustratingly incomplete but rich in style; a movie about the 1950s that couldn’t have been made in any decade but the 1980s.

In a modern spin on biker classic The Wild One (1951), the film traces the destructive aftermath of Vance and his biker gang stopping by a small southern town to tune up their hogs on the way to Daytona. Their presence shakes the sleepy town awake, and tensions begin to rise between the gang and its townspeople. When Vance hops into the cherry red convertible of Telena (Marin Kanter), the two quickly fall in love against the best wishes of her violent, abusive father Tarver (J. Don Ferguson). Previously unspoken hostilities towards the bikers quickly bubble to the surface and escalating into an explosive showdown.

Kathryn Bigelow’s filmmaking style didn’t quite come together until a few years later in her supremely underrated vampire movie Near Dark (1988), and her work here is unlike any other film she’s made. It’s minimalist to a fault; at its core, there are only three or four scenes in which the plot even progresses. Everything in between is simply in service of atmosphere—whether that be shots of Dafoe brooding in sunglasses, or scenes of the bikers playing chicken with switchblades. If that sounds exhausting or dull, that’s often because it is. It’s bold and confident, no question, but also unfocused. There’s an enticing dreaminess that carries the story forward from one scene to the next, but its mastery of mood and atmosphere isn’t enough to make it completely engaging the whole time.

Bigelow began her career as a video artist, and that background is apparent in the way The Loveless forgoes narrative in favour of reconfiguring and recontextualising genre tropes. This manipulation of expectations is something she’d make more accessible as her career continued, but never in quite so experimental a way as she does here. This is a ‘50s biker film stripped down to its most base elements: fast cars, sharp knives, and homoeroticism—something Bigelow always seem fascinated with. Call it a companion piece to Kenneth Anger’s more explicitly avant-garde Scorpio Rising (1963), another film that calls attention to the same fetishism and eroticism in biker films that Bigelow does. While Bigelow’s commentary is much less substantial than Anger’s, the glamour and flashiness in their depiction of biker culture are mutual.

At a brisk 88-minutes, The Loveless is fortunately short enough not to overstay its welcome. In spite of the occasional boredom, there are occasional flashes of brilliance that foreshadow the artistry of Bigelow’s Hollywood career. One later scene rapidly oscillates between chaotic shots of the bikers brawling and screaming in a bar and silent shots of Telena backing out through a thick blue fog. Many scenes, like this one, feel almost like they belong in a better film. Despite the film’s slightness, Bigelow is already a director in full control of her artistic vision. The Loveless has a singular look and feel, which Bigelow is in firm control of during every meticulously composed frame.

It doesn’t hurt that she and Monty Montgomery happened to discover an absolutely unreal talent in young Willem Dafoe. In keeping with the Ryan-Gosling-in-Drive school of acting, Dafoe doesn’t really emote beyond sneers and frowns, yet his presence is magnetic. At times the camera just lingers on a close-up of him for an entire minute, mining his rugged, angular face for meaning. His charisma and the power of his sparse line deliveries is what carries the film and makes it watchable during the slower passages.

Bigelow and Montgomery don’t succeed in everything they set out to do—in spite of Dafoe’s performance and its coolly stylish visuals, it often feels more like a half-remembered dream of a great film than an actual great film—but as a harbinger of what was to come for both Dafoe and Bigelow, the film is a worthwhile early document of its artists’ singular vision.

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the loveless

Blu-ray Special Features:

  • Brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative by Arrow Films, approved by co-writer/co-director Monty Montgomery and director of photography Doyle Smith. This restoration is sharp, striking, and above all incredibly vivid. There are very few movies with as many shades of deep red as this one.
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation.
  • Original lossless mono audio.
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • New audio commentary with co-writer/co-director Monty Montgomery, moderated by Elijah Drenner. The commentary is less a conversation than it is an extended Q&A session with co-director with Monty Montgomery. He’s more genial than I expected, given that he played the extraordinarily spooky and mysterious cowboy in Mulholland Drive (2001), and he has a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes information on how this stark movie came together. Much of the best details, like Willem Dafoe struggling to start his motorcycle in the drawn-out opening crane shot, were serendipitous and ended up on camera by mistake. Montgomery is game for all the questions and gives pretty thorough answers, making this pretty engaging as far as film commentaries go.
  • ‘No Man’s Friend Today: Making The Loveless’, new video interviews with actors Willem Dafoe, Marin Kanter, Robert Gordon, Phillip Kimbrough and Lawrence Matarese. This was easily my favourite special feature on Arrow Video’s Blu-ray. All the actors give really enjoyable interviews, especially rockabilly musician-actor Robert Gordon and the always charming Dafoe. They all give a compelling insight into how they each got involved in the film and their own personal stories on set, and it ultimately made me appreciate the movie quite a bit more.
  • ‘U.S 17: Shooting The Loveless’, new video interviews with producers Grafton Nunes and A. Kitman Ho. While it’s hard for an interview with two producers to match the charisma of interviews with all those actors and former punks, the two men give some interesting insight about how the production came together.
  • ‘Chrome and Hot Leather: The Look of The Loveless’, new interviews with production designer Lilly Kilvert and director of photography Doyle Smith. Kilvert and Smith talk about what is arguably the most exciting aspect of the film: the visuals. They chat about how the film’s visuals were decided upon and how they achieved the striking appearance of it. They say that Douglas Sirk films were a huge influence on the look of The Loveless, which is no surprise because the colours are as gorgeous and rich as anything Sirk ever put to celluloid.
  • ‘Reckless’: new audio interview with musician Eddy Dixon. Dixon wrote the title song to the film and much of the score in addition to that. The featurette functions as almost a miniature biography of his life leading up to the film, which is a little bit of a strange direction but it’s no less interesting. He also talks about the production of the film itself and his friendship with Willem Dafoe and, eventually, Monty Montgomery.
  • Extensive image gallery, including on-set photographs, storyboards, and original production documentation.
  • Theatrical trailer.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx.
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Peter Stanfield.

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Cast & Crew

writers & directors: Kathryn Bigelow & Monty Montgomery.
starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Gordon, Marin Kanter, Danny Rosen & J. Don Ferguson.