Starring Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
Trapped in a dead-end town, a teenage rebel finds romance with the local golden girl.
James Foley’s Reckless begins with a shot of a monstrous steel mill dominating the landscape, pumping out toxic smoke, blotting out light and color. The film, then, cuts to a close-up of the character we later come to know as rebel outsider Johnny Rourke (Aidan Quinn, giving an intense, layered performance in his film debut), trapped by the top and bottom of the frame. The juxtaposition of the two shots suggests to the audience the growing dissatisfaction of the protagonist and the reason for it (an example of the Kuleshov effect, where viewers derive meaning from the interaction of successive shots). The primary theme in the film is the need to break free from oppressive confinement.
Set in a declining Rust Belt town, the film focuses on the restlessness and anomie of the town’s teenage population. As they stand gossiping outside school, the mill stands in the background. Their parents either work for the mill or have been laid off by it. The air they breathe, as photographed by Michael Ballhaus, looks positively toxic. The end of the school day is marked, not by a bell, but by the whistle from the mill. They have a lookout point, but it just looks out on the mill. Even the brand of beer they drink is called “Iron City” (a real brand, but, I’m sure, a deliberate choice.)
The steel mill once held promise for the town and its people. No longer. When the film’s key antagonist, high school bully Randy Daniels (Adam Baldwin), announces that he has a mill job lined up after graduation, another student quips, “Pretty unusual for someone to have a job.” Randy does not seem to recognize that his father (Dan Hedaya) being the manager of the mill probably has something to do with his success. Randy boasts to his football teammate, “I want to make something of myself.” The teammate responds, “’Round here, there’s nothing to make but it.”
In one of the film’s most telling scenes, the school’s football coach (Cliff De Young) asks a classroom full of students to fill out an index card in preparation for Career Day. The students are to identify their goals. The scene is shot from the interior side of the classroom, looking across the students out through the wall of windows, the entirety of which is covered by the mill. One student asks, “What if we don’t have any goals?” The coach tells him to “copy off the kid next to you.” We later learn he was a star player on the same high school’s football team and has never left. Johnny, our protagonist, identifies a simple goal. He writes in large block letters, “TO GET OUT OF HERE!”
Leaving town is not so easy for Johnny. Since his mother abandoned their family, he’s been charged with taking care of his alcoholic father (Kenneth McMillan). Early in the film, he is called away from school to pick up his father from the steel mill, because he was drunk on the job. In order to keep the drunken man on the motorcycle, Johnny chains him to his back, literalizing their symbolic relationship. Furthermore, Johnny’s father represents an additional threat. To Johnny, his father is a vision of his own potential future. The first time we see both characters, they are both getting drunk on beer. They share a name. They share clothes. Johnny comes home one day to find his father in his room, dancing with a prostitute, listening to Johnny’s stereo. The song is Peggy Lee’s hauntingly pessimistic, “Is That All There Is?”
The pessimistic view of the song seems to be shared by everyone in town, save Randy. Yet, no one except Johnny seems to show any desire to leave. This lack of aspiration is explained by a classroom scene. The lesson is inertia. The only part of the lecture the teacher manages to get through before the scene changes is, “Objects at rest tend to stay at rest.” Everyone seems to be prisoners of inertia, unwilling to take any action to better or even just change their lives.
One character trapped by inertia is Johnny’s love interest, high school princess Tracy Prescott (Daryl Hannah). (Reckless came out a year before The Breakfast Club made clear the teen genre’s preference for pairing “the princess” with “the criminal,” or rebel figure.) Tracy dates Randy even though she clearly holds him in disdain. Like so many characters in the teen film genre, she lacks a sense of her own identity and needs only transgression to find that identity. Foley uses a potential shortcoming of his actress to his advantage. The blank, immobile planes of Hannah’s face, static and harshly lit, reflect Tracy’s own shortcomings. When Tracy does show some impetus toward change, Foley shows movement in Hannah’s hair or with the camera around her.
The scene of greatest motion happens at a school dance when Johnny and Tracy make their first real connection. Dancing to Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never,” the couple breaks free from the social constraints of high school, moving freely to the music, unconcerned that they look decidedly uncool. The camera breaks free of realistic motion swirling around them 360º. This moment of liberation is broken by insertion of the massive, solid body of Randy into the shot, bringing the camera to an immediate halt.
The connection between Tracy and Johnny that begins at the dance becomes the primary focus of the rest of the film. This storyline caused reviews of the movie to be almost universally negative. Most reviews cited the story of a privileged girl falling for a rebel boy as being a cliché and, thus, the primary reason for their negative opinion. Even critics who disparaged the film, however, praised Ballhaus’s excellent cinematography.
Instead of merely pointing out that the premise is clichéd, a more interesting approach for the critics to take might have been to consider why this good girl/bad boy plot remains so enduringly popular. Psychologists have suggested that the “bad boy” allows the “good girl” a vicarious release from constraints placed upon her by a society that demands silence, chastity, and obedience from its women, which is certainly the case for Tracy.
Johnny and Tracy find temporary respite in each other. Shortly after the film’s release, it experienced a backlash as a result of its graphic sex and nudity. Foley once quipped that he intended the film to be “Last Tango in West Virginia.” The sex scenes are graphic—although they probably appear less shocking now than when the movie was released 30 years ago. While both performers are in their mid-20s and look it, I’m not sure the teen film audience would be mature enough to handle a depiction of sex that is both graphic and serious without feeling uncomfortable.
Since its release, the reputation of Reckless has improved, and the film has developed something of a cult following on the Internet. Viewers have come to recognize that the simple bad boy/good girl story really is not so simple and that the story’s continuing popularity touches deeper chords in the female psyche. Furthermore, there has been a slow recognition that the film has something real to say about the lack of opportunity and the sense of frustration and hopelessness engendered by economic decline.