Vance (Willem Dafoe) is a biker who is heading out in the middle of the United States with a view to reaching Daytona for the motor racing, but first he has agreed to meet up with his fellow riders at this out of the way location on the road. Before he gets to the diner that will be their rendezvous point, he passes a car parked by the verge, and turns around to investigate. There’s a woman inside who is pondering her next move now one of the tires has blown, so he offers to replace the now-nervous lady’s wheel, which he does with her still in the vehicle, much to her consternation. But he’s not doing this as a favour – he helps himself to the banknotes in her purse and gives her a big kiss into the bargain…
The Loveless was the first credit on a feature for Kathryn Bigelow, who would go on to be the first female to win an Oscar for directing, for The Hurt Locker, one of many films where she would offer her own take on a world of men. This effort sowed the seeds of that as she was plainly more interested in the male bikers than the women who hung around them, though there was one significant female character who throws the story into a different perspective in the final five minutes. However, Bigelow was not acting alone, as she had indie producer Monty Montgomery helping her out as co-director, and his love of offbeat nostalgia was well to the fore throughout.
So was this more a Montgomery movie than it was a Bigelow movie? In truth, it came across as belonging as much to one sensibility as it did to the other’s, and a more dedicated fan might care to pick it apart to discern who was influencing one scene or another more. It was part of the nineteen-eighties interest in the Americana of the fifties, the most enduring of which would be Back to the Future in 1985, but you could see the temperature of the times had already been taken by those filmmakers who had grown up in the past of thirty years before, and had their own impressions to impart. Bigelow wasn’t quite a Baby Boomer, and that showed through in her more contemporary concerns during the works to come.
Of course, as much as her talent it was also notable for bringing cult leading character actor Willem Dafoe to the fore, setting him on his journey of the offbeat, both in his independent or European ventures and his more mainstream excursions. You can tell he was going places with The Loveless, his movie star charisma already developed, and he hit the ground running when he secured the main performance even in a low budget piece such as this. He slotted in nicely to what was harking back to the fifties biker movies, most obviously The Wild One but also the less high profile numbers that would have showed up on the lower halves of drive-in double bills, not to mention a visual aesthetic reminiscent of Kenneth Anger’s leather fetish short films, even down to the inclusion of vintage tunes on the soundtrack.
They were taken care of by singer Robert Gordon, who also played one of Vance’s biker pals, and he offered his renditions of some cult-ish records of the fifties such as Goodbye Baby by Jack Scott which with Gordon’s well-versed knowledge of the era sounded neatly authentic and added to the stylish atmosphere. Even more than that were the visuals, every one either looking as if lifted from an Anger frame or a Norman Rockwell painting, leaving a film to appreciate on an artistic level more than your traditional biker flick manner. The plot was a loose string of tough guy clichés as the visitors to the diner are looked upon with disdain by the square locals, and that appropriated cool from an era that was long gone except in the memories and what pop culture had lasted in the common consciousness carried such bumps in the road as Vance’s dalliance with the aforementioned Telena (Marin Kanter), an androgynous girl whose father has something nasty planned, and has already behaved abominably towards his daughter. But this wasn’t one to watch for the story, it was imagery-led and none the worse for that.
After a starting her career as an artist, this American director and writer moved into the world of film, making her first feature The Loveless in 1982. Five years later came the film which made her name, the modern vampire tale Near Dark, and she followed it up with equally cult-ish thrillers Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days. However, The Weight of Water and K-19: The Widowmaker were critical and financial failures, and she fell quiet until Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker over five years later, for which she became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. She then dramatised the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the controversial Zero Dark Thirty, and tackled the 1967 riots of Detroit. She was once married to fellow director James Cameron, and directed episodes of Wild Palms and Homicide: Life on the Street.