Movies We Like
The evolution of the road-rebel is brought to the screen in this directorial debut from Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, The Hurt Locker). Technically, this is the film that also introduces Willem Dafoe and has him as the star amongst an unusual '80s cast. I say unusual because you have a blend of actors who've made a decent name for themselves by '82 and ones who definitely show promise in the film, and yet this was their only role. Some were from Georgia, where the film is set, so I guess it makes sense that, for the film's simplicity, actors who normally would have been extras were used for key roles. What satisfied me the most about this film was (a) being aware that a woman directed/wrote it, and (b) it has a slow plot that forces you to stop looking for action and absorb all the messages and scarce dialogue within it.
Willem Dafoe plays Vance—a young biker with dirty fingernails and sensational tomcat essence who is adored by several passing ladies. We see him solo at first, marveling at the blacktop and defined only by it and his Harley. He and his buddies are on their way to Daytona and have stopped in a small Georgian town to repair one of their member's bikes. Without the harsh juxtaposition between this group and the locals, I don't think the film's message would be as clear. Both the townspeople and the bikers have a uniform—one pastels and the other leather. Seeing the differences between the two made me expect a war - which eventually does come in the film's climax, but not as I expected it. Many people found the film quite boring, but I'm sure they missed the subtleties that really make it a wonderful debut. For instance, Vance's status as the ringleader is evident in his manner and dress. He doesn’t exactly respect the locals, nor does he expect it from them. On the shoulder of his leather jacket are silver stars, like a general. The men he rides with are not exactly his friends, but rather people he met while in prison. The only thing they share is the love of a beautiful automobile. Without their quest to cause havoc on the way to the largest roadster gathering, all sense of brotherhood would be lost.
The other male role that gets a lot of attention is Davis (Robert Gordon), who is the exact opposite of Vance. I almost expected for the two to eventually butt heads, but it doesn’t happen. Vance is the quiet ringleader and Davis is the trigger-happy tyrant who gives the group their bad name. Telena (Marin Kanter) is the dame among their number, but she really just serves as Davis's accessory. The only other woman who is essential to the plot is Debbie (Tina L'Hotsky). She catches the attention of Vance while at a gas stop, but it is not her looks that he's attracted to, but her shiny new sports car. Her father is Vance's enemy, in a way. He catches wind of their brief fling and seeks them out, not because he is protecting his daughter's honor, but because he wants her all to himself. Debbie's father runs a shady oil scam and is convinced that the group are a bunch of communists who need to be destroyed.
There is something very appealing about the way the group is shot. Most of the dialogue comes from all of their "war stories." Vance talks about his prison sentence after being caught stealing cars. The other boys throw knives at each other for fun after passing around snapshots of their grizzly scars. Even young Debbie has a few wounds of her own after her father went mad following his wife's suicide. As tensions rise between the town and these misfits, a change happens in Vance that is subtle, but very meaningful. He realizes that even though he and his gang are clashing with the locals, the real war that all of them are facing is a war against themselves and their happiness. I enjoyed the small town seclusion, where fun comes to die and must be resurrected by destruction. And while the film is slow, I find that all biker and drag movies are slow. That's what makes them so appealing. Even the short films by Kenneth Anger are able to capture this lifestyle with some awesome techniques, though his are a bit more homoerotic. This is a film with a handsome group of rebels who, as Vance puts it, are "going nowhere….fast." There is a good amount of archival footage of early NASCAR races in Daytona and of general news from the time the movie is set, which I'd guess is the '50s. The costumes and soundtrack are great, and the dialogue used is dated and executed very well. I recommend this to those who are fans of Bigelow and of road movies or those who simply like to see films with American youth on the skids.