Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery’s The Loveless is one of those movies for which the term barely applies. Movies are supposed to, you know, move, and large portions of this one are devoted to staring at characters who are staring at something else. And since the film takes place in a tiny rural haven, there’s not even very much to stare at. The movie has little dialogue and even less action. (Put aside any hope of an actual plot.) But it’s a film that’s surprisingly squirrelly, capable of working its way under your skin and nesting in your brain. It’s a failed, mostly-forgotten student film, but it lingers like a haze.
The film concerns the “story,” such as it is of Vance (Willem Dafoe), a top dog in a small biker gang traveling from Detroit to the Deep South for a stock car race. Along the way, a bike breaks down and the gang stops for repairs in a deeply rural community, where the locals don’t warm to pompadours and rock music. Cultures clash over the course of one long, lazy day, culminating in a violent, deadly confrontation. The story is straight pulp, a near-clone of the famous Marlon Brando flick, The Wild One. But where Brando’s film is mannered and alarmist, The Loveless ducks biker movie tropes and abandons cheap thrills in search of a more profound truth.
The film began life in New York at Columbia University as a joint idea between fellow students Bigelow and Montgomery. They spent months hammering out the sparse screenplay with a goal to make a movie that felt like cheap exploitation, but that had more on its mind, something in the wheelhouse of Kenneth Anger’s experimental biker short, Scorpio Rising, which likewise favored image and ignored narrative to give its fierce personalities room to exist. Although The Wild One was certainly an influence, Bigelow and Montgomery’s script changed directions. For comparison, look at the first part of the clip below. Brando’s Black Rebels are a roaming party, and when they motor into town, they wield thick accents and kooky lingo like a biker-minstrel show, taking pride in needling the terrified locals.
Stick with that video and you’ll see a scene where the bikers dance with their ladies while avoiding physical contact with one another. Both traits are directly reversed in The Loveless. The bikers have little interest in mingling with the locals and keep to themselves at a garage for the bulk of the film, while the women are relegated to sub-second class, barely acknowledged as the men fix their bikes and play macho games, like flicking knives at one another’s feet. (To test their boot strength, one presumes.) The rebels in The Loveless aren’t acting out or putting on a show. They face inward, only interested in their own dynamics, their own bikes, camaraderie, and maleness. If The Wild One’s message is “don’t let this happen to you,” then The Loveless says “this is happening, with or without you, so you’d better just get out of the way.”
Montgomery and Bigelow conceived the movie in the style of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (which explains those long gazes into nowhere), and even planned an Ennio Morricone-esque score before spending the entire music budget on one calypso song. As a student production, money was a constant concern. On the prowl for cheap sets, Montgomery–today a Hollywood society icon and a close friend of David Lynch; he appeared as The Cowboy in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive— booked the shoot in Hinesville, Georgia, a tiny speck of a town outside of Savannah on US-17. Montgomery spent a lot of time in the area as a kid and knew how to make the location work for cheap, as the road was largely abandoned in that stretch, and empty gas stations, hotels, and garages were just standing around waiting to be used. These shelled out sets help give the film its empty, lonely tone, as does the film’s score, provided by another Montgomery addition to the production, Rockabilly musician Robert Gordon. Gordon not only provided music, but also agreed to play Davis, another leader of the biker gang, and to help the struggling production perfect its 50s style and motorcycle lingo. The rest of the cast was filled out with local Atlanta talent, save the lead role of Vance, who went to a young, hungry New York theater actor named Willem Dafoe for a whopping $20,000. The Loveless became Dafoe’s film debut, and if he regretted agreeing to spend the 100-degree Georgia summer in thick biker leathers, he likely didn’t for long. Thanks largely to his role in The Loveless, action director Walter Hill agreed to cast Dafoe in Streets of Fire, kicking off his Hollywood career.
The presence of Hollywood royalty like Bigelow and Dafoe on the marquee is likely why The Loveless still persists today, despite its molasses-pacing and its uneven quality, a side-effect of Bigelow and Montgomery’s process. Like many student films, The Loveless was a training canvas on which its makers could experiment, and the co-directors rethought the process from the ground up, ignoring traditional notions of film authorship to share all duties. The pair literally alternated days as the lead director on set. Montgomery would be the director one day, and Bigelow would sit in the chair the next. On their off days, each director would be close by in case the lead had a question, but otherwise, it was a purely split production.
(It’s tempting to identify shots and scenes that remind me of Bigelow’s later work, such as the gunfight finale, where Gordon fires his weapon with the same kind of sadistic, sexual glee that Ron Silver uses in Bigelow’s Blue Steel, but there’s just no way of knowing who shot which scene.)
Although The Loveless has a cult following, it isn’t much of a crowd-pleaser, and it doesn’t really reward mining for deeper layers. Audiences seem to enjoy just getting drunk on its liquid cool. But there is a message in the film about clinging too closely to those who share your values, about circling the wagons too tightly. The bikers are a clique, an isolated group with their own rules, uniforms, and patterns of behavior, and the film throws them with all of their machismo and hostility up against another closed, insular, and violent group—the town—and the two mix like dynamite and a crowded room. The groups attempt to coexist in isolation, but eventually the clash of values proves to be too much for either to stand and the result is violence. To the people in town, the bikers aren’t just outsiders, they represent the outside, and the town’s secrets can only last on the outskirts. I’m thinking in particular of the young woman (Marin Kanter) who attaches herself to Vance, a girl who carries an ugly secret. If the bikers hadn’t entered town that day, how long would she have lived with her problems, unchanging and helpless? For a long time, I’d imagine.
The Loveless had its American premiere early in 1982, but by then it had already become something of a darling on the festival circuit, and today the Modern Museum of Art in New York boasts a copy as part of its film collection. The film is largely attributed to Bigelow, but that might be because she’s a much more famous name than Montgomery. I’ve always felt like the movie pulses more with his southern rebel blood than with Bigelow’s cool detachment, but who knows? It’s a true collaboration, and kind of a weird, cool, problem child of a film. The Loveless is outsider art about people living and shitting inside their own spheres, rejecting anything else that comes along, but it’s also occasionally a cheap and surface riff on the dangers of rednecks. The irony is that a group of well-educated New York students invaded a small Georgia town to make a movie about northerners invading a small Georgia town, and both the real and fictional groups left damage in their wake. The Loveless unfairly presents the Deep South as a place that’s going nowhere (“Fast,” according to the film’s tagline.) The bikers who ride through don’t know and don’t care about why the town is this way. It’s just another stop for them on their existential ride, and they deliver Northern wrath on their way out.
Only Vance seems to be genuinely touched by the human tragedy that he encounters and the little girl whose life changes because a bike broke down. But earlier in the film, we see Vance’s true colors when he casually molests a woman who asks for his help changing a tire. He makes friends with sociopaths and has little love for the world. We come to realize that there’s nothing moral about any human being in this film. The original title of the film named it after the dead road, US-17, and that title seems even more appropriate, because on that road there is nothing and nobody, just a lost moment in history rotting in the sun.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
Bonus: The Loveless