“Been out of storage for about a year now, and to me, this endless blacktop is my sweet eternity.”
They say it doesn’t matter which way you’re coming from, it’s which way you’re going to, but when you’re going nowhere…fast, here and there are all the same thing. From the opening frame – black, with a blue bent guitar riff streaking through – The Loveless plunges head first into the glamorous (or glamorized) void of the world of an outlaw biker gang in the 1950s. A gleaming leather-clad body leans against a motorcycle, his greasy head bent. As he raises his head his face is slowly revealed; it’s Willem Dafoe, slicking his hair back like he’s been doing this movie star thing his whole life (really it marks his first leading role). He is Vance, fresh out of prison and on his way to regroup with the rest of the gang at a nearby diner in a podunk Florida town on their way to Daytona where they want to go watch the stock cars go round and round until one goes up in flames.
Directed by Katherine Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker) and Monty Montgomery (a more mysterious figure who would go on to produce David Lynch’s Wild At Heart), this world spreads out in Technicolor open roads and skies, shiny cars and chicks, and drives right into the real bleak scene that lives under the paint-job. Like The Wild One and so many other biker flix that came 30 years before it, The Loveless follows and fetishizes the formula. Leather jackets, switchblades, greased-up dos, and real gone rockabilly slang run rampant as the gang settles into a local garage to fix up a gang member’s busted hog. The gang shocks and terrorizes the locals, a parallel story unfolds. Cutaways of busted Coca-Cola machines, stopped clocks, the absurd amount of sugar Vance pours into his tough-guy coffee and the ketchup on his cool dude eggs fill the screen with a sense of the claustrophobia and stasis that smothers these vagabonds who need to keep moving to stay alive.
“I’m a regular Joe – I’ve got an itch between my legs and an afternoon for a heart.”
Although the town is little more than a truck stop, Vance manages to attract his fair share of beautiful babes who can’t resist his diabolical Paul Newman-blue eyes and the aggressive disaffection of his occasional wolfish grin. His primary target is Telena, an underaged nympho who catches his eye when she stops by the garage to gas up her cherry red convertible. Like a little girl trying on her mom’s clothes, Telena awkwardly yet skillfully does her best Rita Haywoth and the next thing the two are showing off their perfect asses in a crappy motel room. Unfortunately for Vance, Telena is also the daughter (and sex slave) to Tarver, the villainous local big shot. When he sees her red-hot wheels in the parking lot, he bursts into the motel room and drags her away kicking and screaming. His driving force is part protective paternal instinct and a healthy dose of possessive jealousy as he shoots out the tires on Telena’s ride, leaving Vance to find his own way.
“They’re a bunch of commies.”
This scene is a turning point and the pace should pick up considerably after the jailbait tryst is broken up, instead we return to the garage to find the slow burn of jaded affectation in tact. Vance brags a little to his buddies about his conquest, sweeping the details of the story under the table and they turn back to the task at hand: sparking that busted bike’s engine and idly entertaining themselves with knife games. Nothing matters but regaining that forward momentum towards Daytona for the races because the thought of missing the spectacle of fast cars driving in circles indefinitely seems to be the only thing that gets any of them hot under the collar.
Ultimately the gang doesn’t drift off into the sunset quickly enough. When the townsfolk and the bikers find themselves mixing at the Lounge after dark, it’s only a matter of time and blood alcohol content before the rising tensions combust. The ladies drink tropical cocktails, the gang drinks beer, and Tarver and his sycophantic brother pound whiskey. The pretty waitress from the diner puts on a terrible insecure striptease in her grandma panties. Applause meets her amateur efforts – hey, you take what you can get – but it’s pretty square, and the bikers aren’t afraid to say so. Time passes slowly, footage of cars spinning out on the Daytona track play on TV screens. Everyone is three sheets to the wind.
In the bar, the boys get sensitive with each other. In the parking lot Tarver shoots his mouth off to his brother, concocting hare-brained plots against the outlaw element. Sportster Debbie, pressed against the side of the building, finds some action with a drooling local boy. Tarver can’t stand to see the townsfolk peacefully socializing with a bunch of hoodlum greasers and when he finds himself at the urinal peeing next to one of the enemy, the real action begins. The young biker’s body is thrown around the roadhouse. And just as Tarver is about to get really out of control, Telena shows up and puts a slew of bullets through her father. The bikers didn’t start the fight but they are gleeful at the chance to go gun-crazy. Bottles shatter, music blares, screams fill the air. Vance watches from a distance as Telena puts a gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger.
In this final moment, Vance is alone again, gazing on Telena’s body slumped over a steering wheel. For just a second, clarity descends and he actually sees what is in front of him – something gets under the leather jacket. But it is just a second, he’s just slowed down to get a look at the accident scene as he passes by. The very next cut brings us the final shot: the gang is tearing out of town, leaving the wreckage behind and never looking back.
“Every one of us dollar chips in a floating craps game.”
The America of outlaws is populated by open roads, small towns, truck stop diners, sleazy motels, and grimy roadhouses. It’s an America where a jukebox always glows in the back corner. An America without a Main Street, just the seedy edges of town, the wrong side of the tracks. Those are the only locations in The Loveless because that’s all there is. For the bikers, it’s just the usual scene, and for the locals roped into their story, it’s the final frontier. In the climactic sequence at the roadhouse, the edginess reaches fever pitch. Funny how a few drinks is all it takes to turn harmless flirtation and idle chat into a stag party striptease and gunplay. But it’s the natural conclusion. You can only run the same circle at top speed so many times before the engine gives out. There’s no way to tell if anyone’s won in a race like that, so you just gotta keep on rolling.