Blu-ray Review: The Loveless (1981)

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In his first lead role, Willem Dafoe's biker ex-con Vance vroom vrooms his way into a sleepy southern stopover town as the de facto leader of the pack.

A film that feels like it came from the same part of the solar system as David Lynch, The Loveless plays as though producer Roger Corman hired Douglas Sirk to direct a Noir remake of The Wild One as penned by a lost member of the Beat Generation.

Set in the late 1950s yet filtered through a lens of postmodernism, what sets the film apart from its overwhelmingly masculine influences is its rampant female gaze which seeps through the leather and chrome — sometimes sneakily, sometimes not — courtesy of Monty Montgomery's Loveless co-writer and co-director Kathryn Bigelow.

Bigelow's graduate thesis film at Columbia, The Loveless is the first of what, for the filmmaker, would evolve into a decades long fascination with telling the stories of men — from the vampires and surfers in Near Dark and Point Break to The Hurt Locker's military bomb squad — who dominate their terrain by moving through life in packs.

To penetrate the film's tight-knit group of bikers whose bond was forged when they did time together back in Detroit, Bigelow uses a technique she would return to as a screenwriter in Near Dark. Bypassing the character who throws knives and shoots guns like a stereotypical alpha male in favor of the charismatic, enigmatic outsider among the band of outsiders who's slightly out of step with the rest, Bigelow fixates on the man who's the real alpha because he thinks for himself.

Introducing us to Vance as he combs his hair and buckles his belt as if to make sure he looks the part before he gets back on his bike and rolls into town, despite his bedroom eyed posturing and swagger, Vance is a man who does one thing while we hear another. Describing himself as "ragged, beyond torn up," Vance's tough exterior is quickly compromised by his starkly poetic sensibility as evidenced in the film's opening voice-over narration.

Predicting he'll be "no man's friend today," and using a lighter instead of his crew's choice of matches throughout, in Vance we see a conflicted soul who figures that if they're going to burn, it's better to do it fast.

Bursting with pheromones that cut right through the smell of gasoline and tobacco, lingering in the humid Georgia air and following him wherever he goes, Willem Dafoe's lead might believe he's "going to hell in a bread basket," but befitting of the genre, he soon meets a seductive girl (Marin Kanter) who swears that she could send him "to heaven." The fact that she says this in the passenger seat of her beautiful red Chevrolet Corvette while he is at the wheel is the only encouragement he needs to take her up on her offer before The Loveless takes the first of a few dark turns.

A largely plotless endeavor overall, Bigelow and Montgomery's film is heavy with mood and ambiance (and as such, it nicely prepares Montgomery for a future producing David Lynch's Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart).

Still, whether it's in the way that Vance is predominantly framed by himself or the way that the filmmakers emphasize the loneliness of a nearly empty room by lensing it from far away, more is said with the movie's careful composition than in its sometimes awkward Beat speak. With On the Road style lines like, "We go nowhere. Fast," the dialogue occasionally calls enough attention to itself that it disrupts the otherwise hypnotic spell that the film casts on its viewers.

Chronicling what happens when a group of Beatnik bikers take an unwelcome pit stop in a closed-minded town, The Loveless is inherently focused on the divide between us vs. them. From terse words to loaded stares, it doesn't take us long to realize that everything the townspeople fear about Vance's crew is everything they represent — namely, freedom and sex.

Epitomized by the characters' bikes and the film's dialogue, freedom is there for all to see from the very first frame. But when it comes to sex, although The Loveless is as turned on as its characters are, it subverts its sexual desire in a myriad of ways.

While a character's eye-line is a dead giveaway of where their mind is at (as evidenced in a notorious men's room scene), the filmmakers get in on the fun with the camera itself. Mischievously experimenting with angles and perspective throughout the work, The Loveless heavily utilizes its female gaze to turn its men into eye candy.

Lingering on the leather jacket clad, shirtless, glistening abs of Phillip Kimbrough's Hurley, cinematographer Doyle Smith zooms in awfully close to several bikers' silver belt buckles before the shot eventually cuts or the camera oh-so-slowly tilts up. Wondering if it is truly the bike that drives them or if sex is the real fuel they need, when Robert Goron's Davis bids another character to "come close to me," for knife target practice in the lustful Loveless, it sounds like another "send you to heaven" come on.

Using "people as iconography," as Willem Dafoe shares in a new behind-the-scenes featurette, we learn that Bigelow and Montgomery frequently sought out cast members because they had the right look, undoubtedly to convey the right feeling they needed without exposition. And while Loveless may have been slow to catch on in the United States, elsewhere the picture's implied — read between the shots — sexuality aroused fans as much as the film itself. After a midnight screening of The Loveless in London, the film became a smash hit with gay audiences and, as Dafoe reveals, played there for years.

Still a personal favorite of many of the original cast members, it's a treat to watch them share great making-of stories on the spotless new Blu-ray transfer, including Dafoe who confesses that he lied about knowing how to ride a motorcycle to get the job before brushing up on the basic shifting patterns at the public library.

Featuring a great soundtrack care of musician Robert Gordon, who stars in The Loveless as Vance's right hand man Davis, although it's sure to attract viewers who can appreciate the subtext and symbolism as well as its many influences, it's safe to say the film is not for everyone.

Clocking in at a mere eighty-two minutes, the degree to which its running time feels longer depends upon one's patience. Also important is just how much we're able to acclimate to not only the film's nontraditional approach to storytelling but its slower pace as well, which gets teased out even more due to the length between cuts.

Feeling slightly stagy at times, most notably in the film's ending which, despite circling back to an earlier conversation, comes off as a heavy-handed coda to a chaotic sequence, The Loveless has a much stronger build than finish. Still, devotees of not only Bigelow and Dafoe, but also those well versed in art and classic film are sure to find much to feast their eyes upon, including an endless supply of lustful looks and smoke, belt buckles and chrome, and of course, leather and testosterone.

So, baby, vroom, vroom.

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