Few films capture the cloistered-connected dyad of 80s teendom like Reckless, the directorial debut of James Foley, the screenwriting debut of Chris Columbus and the acting debut of Aidan Quinn. Few films, too, capture the peculiar pregnancy that Rust Belt towns had at this moment in American cinema. The story revolves around two adolescents, Johnny and Tracey, played by Quinn and Daryl Hannah, who are growing up in one of these towns. There’s nothing to do but drive around, and the impoverished conditions means that virtually nobody ever gets out. Yet the local factory also brims with hyperreality from its very first appearance, especially when paired with the ethereal synth score, which together evoke the amorphous global forces that are gradually turning this downsized industrial community into a regional backwater. That makes the town feel even more insular, but also offers fleeting glimpses of a cosmic beyond, a world that remains just beyond the reach of the two main characters. Every sightline, the from school to the cemetery, converges on the factory, and yet it’s impossible to see the factory in its entirety in any one shot either. Instead, the factory is displaced from itself, standing in for a global market that has insinuated itself into the very core of the town.
There is, however, one place in the town where such a vantage point seems possible as a fantasy – and it is this location that opens the film. High above the factory, on a vertiginous escarpment, a lookout has been constructed, replete with a pair of binoculars for those who might care to gaze at the industrial panorama below in more detail. It’s inconceivable that most residents could even find their way to this remote bluff, let alone be inclined to peruse the factory where they spend (or used to spend) most of their days, and indeed Johnny seems to be the only person who has visited the lookout in years, and perhaps the only local who even knows of its existence. More like a relic from an alien civilisation than a part of the town’s texture, it causes Tracey to ask, incredulously, “how did this come to be here?” when Johnny escorts her up to its precipice for their very first date. Without answering, he leads her to the binoculars, which allow them to scrutinise every detail of the factory as it sprawls across the town, but also relegates it to an almost unimaginable distance, collapses it into the cosmos.
In other words, this lookout forms one of the virtual and monadic spaces that were starting to pop up in 80s cinema around this time as harbingers of a new digital and disembodied horizon. The enormous sightlines of the lookout, both vertical and horizontal, seem to defy regular space and time, and achieve total science fiction sublimity when Johnny brings Tracey up there for the first time. As the first brushes of snow light up the sky, the smokestacks are distilled to dots of fluorescent flame, and a breathless immanence settles over everything, an overwhelming sense of emergence from the banalities of the here and now. Johnny has anticipated this moment earlier in the film, by using the lookout as a springboard for his own attempts to transcend space and time with increasingly precarious acts of motorcycle brinksmanship right on the cusp where it drops off into open space. The film starts with him lining up a beer container on this precipice, which is unfenced, and trying to skid right up to it without knocking it into the ether, but without careening over himself either. He attempts a similar project with Tracey, holding her over the edge of the lookout, and telling her that he can either take her home, or they can both tumble over together, into an unformed future.
This forced choice ruptures the aesthetic of the film, most immediately by freezing the action into a single frame that is so incongruous I initially thought my streaming service had stopped working. When the image resumes, the yearning aesthetic of this opening act gives way to a more frenzied style, halfway between an action film and a music video, to mirror Johnny, and the film’s, newfound understanding that the real and hyperreal spaces of the film cannot be traversed – that there is no way to actually inhabit the vistas glimpsed from the lookout, at least not at this moment in time. Rather than accept that, Johnny, and the film, try to break through what one character describes as the town’s tendency towards inertia (“objects at rest stay at rest, objects in motion stay in motion”), starting with Johnny’s incessant motorbike riding. Johnny bikes to avoid staying still, while his paranoia that movement might itself become another form of inertial stasis leads him to accelerate with every fresh bend, until he seems to be heading beyond the physical world itself, setting his target on a virtual destination, coterminous with the lookout sightlines, that displaces itself as he approaches it.
Through and around his motorbike, Johnny also discovers two other ways of articulating himself at this threshold of his hyperlocal town and the hyperglobal textures surrounding and infiltrating it. The first of these is dancing, although dancing of a strange and alien kind, and in many ways closer to combat, as we see during Johnny’s opening contortions to a track by Romeo Void. Despite the austere jouissance of the coldwave classics that burnish the soundtrack, and that periodically propel Johnny’s body into one abrasive angularity after another, his dancing reminded me of the images and affects of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. which was released the same year. Throughout this album, Springsteen hones in on characters who are home, alone, in the dark, their factory work outsourced to amorphous forces, trying to come to terms with the global economy that has insinuated itself into what appeared to be their most private and sacrosanct spaces. These moments often coincide with the intrusion of synthesizers into Springsteen’s heartland rock textures, such as the sound of the distant train in “I’m on Fire,” or the moment in “Dancing in the Dark,” when the “radio’s on and I’m movin’ round my place.” These vignettes of haptic readjustment in the face of a new global space, a darkness on the edge of the town, drive Reckless’ dance scenes as well.
Along with dancing, Johnny discovers fire as another kind of propulsion into hyperreality, a counterpoint to the chill in the air, the edge of 70s desuetude and melancholy, that lingers over the town. The interior and close-up shots of the factory are pure infernal science fiction – molten steel, boiling water, clouds of steam – and by the third act these have started to imbue the sky with horizon flares in the manner of Tony Scott. Johnny’s last gesture is lighting his house on fire, and destroying everything he owns, to force himself out of town, gathering the primal power of the factory floor, and the boiler room of the local school, where he and Tracey sleep together for the first time, into one final burst of manic energy. Arson brings fire and dance together too, as Johnny precedes the destruction of his house with his strangest and most tortured movements so far – almost as if he is trying to imitate a flame, or harness its irreducible power. In the last instance, it takes an act of creative destruction, of ingenious self-immolation, to lean into the hyperreal global outside that the film evokes – which is to say a rejection of the stable futurity that is so often mourned and elegised in these Rust Belt films. In the closing scene, Johnny rocks up at the school while a marine is “daring” the students to “think about your future, your country’s future, the future of freedom,” and takes Tracey with him to a place without a name, a destination the film cannot fully conceptualise but is no less urgent (and perhaps more urgent) for that: “I gotta go – I don’t know where.”