The Freshman film. While some are able to catapult their directors and stars onto bigger and better things most end up as experiments, widely unseen indicators of things to come. For every “Clerks” there is a “Fear and Desire”, for every “Who’s that Knocking on My Door” there’s a “Praying with Anger”. In “The Loveless”, cult favorites Kathryn Bigelow and Willem Dafoe were each given their first chance to shine, with Bigelow as co-director and Dafoe leaping into his first starring role.
Vance (Dafoe) and Davis (Robert Gordon, who also contibuted music for the film) are bikers, who along with the rest of their gang find themselves sidetracked in a small Southern town on their way to Daytona. The locals don’t take kindly to the riff raff, especially Tarver (J. Don Ferguson) whose daughter Talena (Marin Kanter) is strongly attracted to the leader of the pack. While many of the tropes from the biker genre are present (local distrust of the “cool” bikers, the Romeo and Juliet style romance, the eventual violence) “The Loveless” has an odd, hypnotic pace more fitting to a European drama.
Not a lot happens during the course of the plot and the first major plot point occurs nearly an hour into the film but this seems to be precisely Bigelow’s point. Despite all the attitude given by Vance and his gang, their rebellious nature never really amounts to much. At one point Vance informs his friends that they’re going nowhere…fast, this statement seems to sum up the gang’s bleak existence. The locals may secretly envy the freedom presented by the bikers but in the end all the detached coolness and refusal to accept authority still doesn’t make Vance and company’s lives any better or worthwhile.
Two factors prevent “The Loveless” from being absolutely intolerable:
1. The maturely handled style of the film. Most new directors would attempt to use shock tactics to draw the audience in but Biegelow and Montgomery vie for a deeper resonance from their viewers.
2. Dafoe’s performance. Cynical but not without emotion the character of Vance could easily have been two dimensional in the hands of a less capable actor. Dafoe*s odd charisma is apparent from even this early on in his career.
In showing the audience that despite the biker lifestyle, our heroes are still on the same path as the “squares”, Bigelow and Montgumery’s S L O W pace is aided by a great sense of cinematography and use of space. At one point Vance waits for his fellow riders in a diner. Instead of solely concentrating on Vance sitting at his table, there are several quick shots to little touches in the diner including neon lights and shadows upon the floor. The lighting and framing of the items is impressive and the subtle cinematography is utilized well to enhance this and every other scene. This montage is over in a matter of seconds but helps convey the passage of time in an offbeat yet strangely engaging manner.
“The Loveless” is far from Bigelow or Dafoe*s best work but still remains an impressive debut for both. Thanks to the deliberately subdued pace and reworking of the biker genre, “The Loveless” deserves to be given a second chance.