Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial debut has its standout elements but is overall too detached for its own good.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. In November we’re celebrating Kathryn Bigelow, the first female winner of a Best Director Academy Award, and her fascinating journey from indie genre films to blockbuster political dramas. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Who exactly is the loveless in Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial debut The Loveless? Well, it’s basically everyone in the cast. The Loveless concerns a group of bikers led by Vance (Willem Dafoe). With their leather jackets and loud motorcycles, they’re the quintessential picture of a rebellious gang. In the hands of Bigelow (as well as writer/director Monty Montgomery), their antics are less escapist fun and more existential despair. Each of these bikers is dealing with traumas of their past while also grappling with the slings and arrows of Southern town folk.
Vance’s circumstances briefly improve when he encounters Telena (Marin Kanter), a young woman with a souped-up hot rod and a past involving her mother’s suicide. A bond forms between the two, but love can’t go unchallenged in this domain. Such a challenge emerges through Telena’s abusive father Tarver (J. Don Ferguson). He hates anyone coming between him and his daughter almost as much as he despises bikers. Naturally, Vance and Telena’s bond will not go over well with him.
Bigelow’s career falls into two sections. There’s the era where she directed over-the-top genre fare like Near Dark or Point Break. Then there’s her current filmmaking cycle, where she helms dramas like The Hurt Locker. The Loveless doesn’t fit into either aesthetic neatly, though it does carry shades of various future Bigelow features.
The biggest way The Loveless departs from Bigelow’s norms is in its cinematography. Traditionally, Bigelow movies have used an immersive style of camerawork. The Ronald Reagan chase scene in Point Break or John Boyega’s Melvin Dismukes getting interrogated in Detroit are great examples of how Bigelow uses up close and personal camerawork to enhance her intense storytelling.
With The Loveless, Bigelow and cinematographer Doyle Smith embrace a more detached style of filmmaking. Wide shots are a common sight, usually to emphasize how isolated characters like Vance are from the larger world. Even in tighter pieces of framing, the characters are always kept at a distance from the camera. Visually, The Loveless is a much slower-paced creation than a typical Bigelow effort, which matches the hangout vibe of its script.
With The Loveless, Bigelow and cinematographer Doyle Smith embrace a more detached style of filmmaking.
This approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Leaning so heavily on such a distant visual style keeps the characters of The Loveless at arm’s length. Thus, the cast rarely rises above being caricatures of bikers and angry rednecks. This renders a scene where one of Vance’s friends is beaten up for wearing women’s underwear feeling way less impactful as it should be. After being kept at a visual distance for so long, one isn’t invested in the characters in this skirmish. Much like with her later film Detroit, Bigelow forgets to inject humanity into all the suffering.
This trait proves more useful in subdued scenes, like Vance looking at his naked reflection in a hotel room. Here, a man who puts on a tough-guy persona on the open road finally lets his guard down. Without saying a word, Dafoe richly reflects confronting long-concealed pain. Bigelow’s unusually restrained camerawork proves a boon in how it allows one to absorb both the scenes melancholy aura and Dafoe’s performance. Here, The Loveless cements itself as a movie that’s better at suggesting turmoil rather than showing it.
While The Loveless breaks away from its directors’ visual standards, it’s much more in line with her other works on a thematic level. A story about hooligans in a Southern setting that challenges gender norms can’t help but recall Bigelow’s seminal vampire movie Near Dark. Whereas Near Dark was about offering an alternative to those norms, The Loveless is about presenting those norms and all their worst qualities with no flourishes.
This is especially apparent with antagonist Tarver. It’s easy to see a version of this story where Tarver is hero, a red-blooded American who stopped commie bikers from destroying his town. The inappropriate love for his daughter would inspire not shudders but cutesy material for a Rodney Atkins song. Bigelow’s stark writing, though, strips away any pageantry and instead renders Tarver as he is. Here is a loud-mouth galoot terrified by women having agency of their own. There is no tragic backstory to soften up the character, he’s a monster through and through.
The simplified approach to the characters of The Loveless can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing, but it proves perfectly suited to Tarver. Bigelow and Montgomery’s script aims to highlight problems with the status quo in Southern cultures but get undercut by more conventional storytelling tendencies. Primarily troublesome is that Telena’s pain ends up being only as important as it relates to Vance. The character isn’t allowed to feel like her own creation separate from the male protagonist.
That sort of shortcoming renders The Loveless an odd creature. That sentiment is doubly true for where this movie fits into Bigelow’s career as a filmmaker. Visually, it’s nothing like any of her other works. Thematically, though, it does feel like the nebulous form of more fleshed-out works yet to come. A raggedy work of independent filmmaking, the best parts of The Loveless do offer tantalizing glimpses into a future great filmmaker.