The Loveless, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1982 debut, shows a lot of promise, but more than anything it shows an incredibly raw filmmaker at a very early phase of her career. Though it has intriguing elements to it, and is filled with style, this is a somewhat shapeless, rambling film, bordering on incoherence.
The Loveless stars a very young Willem Dafoe as the leader of a gang of bikers who come to a small town. The setting isn’t firmly established, but the music, the cars, the style, all seem to have come straight out of the ’50s. The bikers disrupt small-town life in a myriad of ways, eventually leading to violence, but this film follows a kind of dream logic that makes the action incoherent and verging on irrelevance.
There’s the shape of some interesting ideas in here! We see that this film is, at least partially, a deconstruction of the romanticization of ’50s biker culture. There are hints that Bigelow is interested in masculinity and exploitation of women, themes she would come back to later in her career. Defoe’s character casually mentions that he was imprisoned for breaking the Mann Act – when pressed as to what that means, he declines to comment (The Mann Act made human trafficking, specifically with the aim of prostitution, a felony).
Bigelow doesn’t probe these ideas, or go deep with them at all. This is closer a tone poem than a true movie. On the other hand, this film has a commitment to its style and aesthetic that helps to raise it beyond its story and themes (or lack thereof). It’s fascinating to consider this in context of Bigelow’s latter career, where she’s adapted to more of an uncompromisingly austere style.
Overall, I found The Loveless a dull watch, only buoyed by its use as a point of comparison in the larger scope of Bigelow’s career. The promise here is clear, and her later career of course proves that the best was yet to come, but I’m just not sure this is a film worth revisiting.