Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Gordon, J. Don Ferguson
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Every so often, a movie comes along that was well made, well acted, and well produced, but misfires on so many levels. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless unfortunately falls into this category of film. The film is beautifully shot, the acting is well done, and everything feels so gritty, you can smell the seediness of the story coming through the screen. But the story leaves something to be desired and there’s only so much that artful design can keep a movie going without a substantive tale.
Vance (Dafoe) is a biker on his way to a biker festival in Daytona. He ends up staying in a middle-of-nowhere town in the south where nobody has any ambition and the only thing reason anyone goes there is to leave as soon as possible. For Vance and his gang, they need to repair their bikes. However, they run afoul of some of the townsfolk; namely Tarver (Ferguson) who thinks they’re up to no good (he’s not wrong). Vance ends up wooing Tarver’s daughter, Telena (Marin Kanter). Outraged by Vance, Tarver ends up plotting revenge on the gang.
The universe that Bigelow has crafted feels like the middle of nowhere U.S.A. Her use of sound (or in many cases, lack of sound) really brings the point forward that Vance has stumbled into a lawless, corrupt land. The roar of the engines of the motorcycles echoing in the distance spread across the landscape to fill the void of nothingness. Everything is boring and dirty with a sense of resigned indifference that gives the impression that everyone living in this world has forgotten about their dreams far too long ago and now settle for mundane living.
While Bigelow paints the brush, the actors bring out the colour. Dafoe’s Vance is the character that bring contrast to this world. Even though he’s an outlaw, he still makes it clear that there is more to this world than just surviving and living out your days. Vance is a complicated character that has a few redeeming qualities but is overall a bad guy. Dafoe plays Vance so well in that he’s charming and charismatic enough for you to want to get behind the protagonist without fully committing since Dafoe can play a ruthless jerk so well. Dafoe will smile and do the right thing just long enough to let your guard down, but he shows such an obnoxious side that ruffle feathers, it brings the viewer back to realizing that Vance is not a guy you’d want to see walking your way.
The rest of the acting is quite good too. J. Don Ferguson does an excellent job making Tarver irredeemable; that when the character is needed to cast a good light on Vance, there’s no questioning as to who the audience is supposed to side with. Although sometimes Ferguson comes across as comically heelish, it’s not done in a way that you would see if this was a slapstick film.
Yet this film misses the mark. Bigelow paints with detailed strokes and the actors shine on the canvas, but the painting itself is a garbled mess. Perhaps like most abstract expressionist art, it’s what you make of it rather than of what’s been created. The film moves along at a snail’s pace and, at many times, is rather boring. Perhaps Bigelow did too good a job at creating the nothingness in a small southern town because you’re just waiting for something to happen in the film. When something finally does happen, it doesn’t really make the story make any more sense; it just another element to the film. For example, much of the movie takes place at the garage where the gang is fixing their bikes. Aside from the introduction of Telena, there isn’t much going on in these scenes. This movie feels awfully long in the tooth.
I’m sure there are some people that feel like I’ve missed the point of The Loveless. While writing this review, I felt like I was composing an English essay where I had to grapple with a bunch of elements that the author was trying to pass along to their reader. Kathryn Bigelow isn’t as abstract with her film, but if the first impression upon watching the movie is nothing more than a shrug, then further reflection isn’t usually going to happen. Because I’m writing a review, I’m thinking about the movie more than I would have had I casually seen it. A good movie that makes you reflect and think is one that stays with you because of its impact and the enjoyment you may get out of it. Unfortunately for The Loveless, I felt neither.