A band of outsiders were the heroes of Kathryn Bigelow's contemporary vampire classic, Near Dark (1987). But it wasn't the first time Bigelow built a movie around such a group of rebels. First came The Loveless, the little-seen 1982 neo-biker movie she co-wrote and co-directed with Monty Montgomery, which gave Willem Dafoe his first starring film role.
Like other budding New York indie directors, including Jim Jarmusch and Susan Seidelman, Bigelow and Montgomery were trying to grab some of the attitude of the post-punk music scene and the downtown Manhattan art scene in The Loveless. The latter yielded Dafoe, who came out of the Wooster Group experimental theater company.
The Loveless is most definitely a neo-biker movie, not a biker movie. Its plot, about a group of northern greasers pit-stopped in a small Georgia town on the way to Daytona, is a rehash of The Wild One (1953). Like Brando in that movie, Dafoe's Vance is clearly the leader of the pack and, again like Brando, he catches the eye of the antsy teen daughter (Marin Kanter) of a local bigwig (J. Don Ferguson). When the story isn't mimicking The Wild One, it's aping the leather-and-chrome fetishization of Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising (1963). Meanwhile, its score is by N.Y. neo-rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, who co-stars as one of the bikers; other music is provided by John Lurie and Evan Lurie of the downtown neo-jazz group The Lounge Lizards.
So The Loveless is like a cover version of an old song. But Bigelow and Montgomery don't add much of a revisionist twist to the familiar story and images they co-opt. The most interesting aspect of the movie is that it came out when the Reagan administration was conjuring nostalgia for a quaint, “Father Knows Best” 1950s, while this 1959 story presents a much different picture: a racist, abusive, corrupt society at war with itself (north vs. south, old vs. young, white vs. black). Regardless of that fertile contrast, The Loveless comes off as very self-conscious and very slow. Put it next to a genuine 1950s juvenile delinquent movie, or even Robert Rodriguez's neo-j.d. TV movie Roadracers (1994), and it's a post-modern pose that rarely musters the energy or sense of danger it needs.
Montgomery frankly acknowledges the movie's lack of narrative momentum in the audio commentary on the DVD release, explaining that he and Bigelow had asked Gordon to compose a suspense-building score inspired by Ennio Morricone’s music for Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). But Gordon spent most of the money on one song, sending the directors scrambling for other music sources.
The movie was shot in Montgomery's native Georgia on the bypassed highway U.S. 17, which was replete with untouched period detail.