Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Kathryn Bigelow launched her career with an arty, intoxicating biker drama

Willem Dafoe
Willem Dafoe
Screenshot: The Loveless

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The new directorial debuts The Broken Hearts Gallery and Antebellum have us thinking back on some of our favorite first features.

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The Loveless (1981)

Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director Oscar for her harrowing 2008 war movie The Hurt Locker, an overdue industry recognition for a veteran filmmaker whose well-crafted action-adventure pictures haven’t always gotten the respect they’ve deserved. While The Hurt Locker had more of an Academy-friendly heft than the likes of Near Dark, Point Break, and K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow’s earlier movies were hardly throwaways. Whenever she’s been in the director’s chair—which isn’t often enough, given her talent and resumé—she’s rarely made the simplest, safest choices. Instead, she’s pushed for moments that unsettle audiences, her characters behaving in chilling or off-putting ways, or committing acts of jarring violence. Whatever the reason, it’s not unusual for even fans of the filmmaker to be uncertain about what they’re watching as the story unfolds. These movies are meant to be mulled over.

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That’s especially true of her debut feature, The Loveless, co-written and co-directed with Monty Montgomery (who a decade later would go on to produce David Lynch’s Wild At Heart and Jane Campion’s The Portrait Of A Lady, which should give some indication of his own offbeat sensibility). Bigelow was 28 when she and Montgomery shot The Loveless, over 25 days in a dinky Georgia town in the fall of 1980. At the time, she’d spent much of the ’70s deeply immersed in New York’s academia and art worlds, working on projects that coolly observed and commented on the iconography of pulp and Americana, while palling around with Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Philip Glass, and Julian Schnabel. When The Loveless was finished, it played international festivals and a few arthouses before becoming a part of The Museum Of Modern Art’s collection in 1988. That’s not a bad fate for a low-budget biker picture.

It’s probably better to approach The Loveless as an art installation, not as a B-movie. Slow-paced and light on dialogue, the film takes a simple premise—a small band of slick-haired, motorcycle-riding delinquents shake up a sleepy southern roadside community while on their way to Daytona—and uses it as an excuse for long, languorous shots of characters who look like they’ve just stepped off the cover of a drugstore paperback. The picture takes its cues from its two odd-looking, creepily intense stars: Willem Dafoe, getting his first leading role in a film after helping to found New York’s experimental theater company The Wooster Group, and Robert Gordon, a rockabilly revivalist who sprang from New York’s early punk scene (and who also provides The Loveless rumbly, twangy soundtrack).

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The Loveless has much more in common with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet than Bigelow’s Blue Steel. The character are abstracted, the style rarely approximates anything that could be called “realism,” and even the climactic eruption of gunplay and sex feels more like a dark subversion of exploitation formulas than a proper payoff. This is a handsome-looking picture that lulls audiences with its silences and surfaces. But as with the way Dafoe’s antihero Vance takes his breakfast—with lots of sugar in his coffee and lots of ketchup on his eggs—the film’s flavor can be overpowering.

Availability: The Loveless is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. It can also be rented or purchased from Google Play, iTunes, or YouTube.

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Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.

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