The Loveless (1981)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Monty Montgomery

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The Loveless is nothing like what I’d expect for a Kathryn Bigelow movie.  The director of popcorn action flicks like Point Break and serious, gritty oscar dramas like The Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty and now Detroit starts her career off here with a Jim Jarmusch-ian arthouse film.  The Loveless reminded me most of all of Jarmusch’s Down By Law.  The backcountry roads roamed by Willem Dafoe’s biker Vance felt very much like the quiet roads that ended that early Jarmusch film.

In both stories, the characters of the film feel out of place in this environment, and both films deal with characters mostly defined by their lack of direction.  Jarmusch characters like to wander.  In Down By Law they escape prison, but even then they continue to wander.  In later Jarmusch films, including 2016’s Paterson, his protagonists experience a zen-like existence, in which to be as close to your interpretation of God means to do next to nothing, just to be.

Vance is our main character in this Bigelow film.  He zips down a lonely highway, and other than a few encounters over this one long day, he just exists.  Early in the story he helps a woman with a flat tire, but his generosity morphs into something not to so nice when he grabs money from her purse and feels her up.  Then he’s off, and we never see her again.

This isn’t a plot-driven movie.  It’s barely driven in any way.  Vance spends plenty of time at a cafe where he meets up with other greaser bikers, all unified by their leather and greasy hair.  Other characters look down on them, their gang status a stain on the town’s idle nature, but beyond that, it’s hard to get a sense of what these characters want, what the people around them want and what the film is trying to tell us.

Vance’s harassment of the woman with the flat tire mirrors a later moment in which a woman he sleeps with is physically abused by a man we think could be her father but turns out to be a jealous lover.  When she is essentially kidnapped from Vance’s motel room, he doesn’t do a thing.  He just sits on the bed and smiles, perhaps relieved to be free from her.

Later, Vance’s fellow bikers run this man off the road, and the next time we see him, the girl shoots him dead in an act of vengeance.  Vance simply watches this unfold, helpless and expressionless.  The man who always seemed cool and in command, even when he wasn’t doing a damn thing, is now a shell of himself, nothing more than a witness to something he may not understand.

Vance follows her out to the car where the girl slowly aims the gun at herself and fires.  This is a slight payoff of an earlier moment in which the girl, almost defiantly, tells him about how her mother killed herself, and she later received her car as a gift from her father who felt guilty for how he treated her afterwards.

Vance has plenty of time to intervene and save the woman he seemed to have developed a modicum of attraction for.  But he doesn’t, either because he’s fascinated, confused or ambivalent.  Either way, Vance starts out as this stoic figure who cruises the roads like a cowboy in a western, and in the end he’s shaken by what’s unfolded in front of him.

This story is so brief, and the characters introduced so quickly, that you might expect that Vance and his gang have strange encounters like this all the time, riding across a country with people they don’t understand or want to understand.  And as a biker, Vance and company drop in and take off.  They have no roots, no money, just their carefully-constructed self image.

Is being cool enough?  Maybe they don’t think of it that way, but the men, in particular, of this story are precise with their hair, their clothes, even the way they speak.  Everything about them shouts “COOL” in the classic sense.  They drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and loathe everything.  They’re too cool to care, and they find power in such ambivalence, as if that attitude will make sure life’s pain never touches them.  You can’t feel anything if you never allow yourself to be vulnerable.  That’s why, even naked in bed with a woman he might really like, Vance doesn’t fight back when she’d forcibly removed from his room.  He just sits back down, smiles and joins his friends.

So The Loveless might be about people who willfully abstain from culture and a social life.  They’re a pack of wolves, prowling, sometimes hunting but never settling.  You don’t get the sense that these types of people get old, but just die instead.

From a technical standpoint, I love this movie.  It’s full of static shots, carefully staged but hardly flashy.  The camera only moves occasionally outside of a few shots that move in line with Vance on a motorcycle.  The camera really just does the minimum amount of work.  In some movies the camera is a character (anything shot by Emmanuel Lubezki or directed by David Fincher), but here the camera is an observer.  This style reminded me of old French films in which certain directors, once comfortable enough to refrain from a handheld shooting style, simply placed the camera where it needed to be and moved on.

In this fashion, you don’t really pick up on any distracting camera movements that might add emphasis to a particular emotion or tone.  The movie remains as objective as possible, offering you no clues other than the characters’ behavior.  It’s up to you to figure out what’s going on.

The heavy use of static, unmoving shots adds to the vignette feeling of the movie.  This is a series of portraits of a particular way of life in a particular moment in time.  There are so many beautifully staged (but again not flashy) shots.  It might be a close up of a hand cradling a cigarette next to a cup of coffee, or it might be a wide shot of a cheap motel, but the story seems to be conveyed in these silent shots.  The dialogue is just a but of flavor.

This shooting style also slows the movie down.  It moves at a very leisurely pace, with nowhere to go (“we’re going nowhere fast”), and the unmoving shots plus the lengthy shots feel like a constant break check.  If ever the movie seems to pick up the pace, it quickly slows it back down.  This isn’t about momentum because there is none down here and for these characters.

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