No Looking Back is likely one of the strongest works in Edward Burns’ canon, yet it remains grossly underseen and was a massive box office failure. (Burns later said his friends nicknamed the film Nobody Saw It. After its poor commercial reception he did not write anything for two years.) Edward Burns is strong writer and director, and I highly recommend all of his works. While I may have a bias because I am a major Bruce Springsteen fan, I am particularly intrigued with No Looking Back‘s intertextual relationship to his work. Not only does the film include three Springsteen songs, it can also be read as a modern visual representation of “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road.”
The film focuses on blue-collar characters with escapist fantasies, unfulfilled hopes, and fragile, unrequited love. Charlie (played by Edward Burns) returns to his Long Island home to reengage with his ex-girlfriend. Burns constructs a dismal, dark and flat milieu drawn out of typical Springsteenian iconography. The isolated and cloudy town is filled with garbage in the streets, decrepit buildings, gas stations, scrubby bars, old cars, and a seaside town adjacent to an aging boardwalk. Burns breathes to life Springsteen’s lyrics:
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
The female lead, Claudia, works at a dirty greasy spoon diner, but longs to escape the town and her low-class job. However, she feels bound to her fiancee. (Played by another famous New Jersey musican, Bon Jovi.) Charlie, like the “Born to Run” narrator, wills Claudia to leave the town and move on with her life by romantically escaping with him.
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go
and we’ll walk in the sun
Evoking these lyrics, Charlie dreams of running to travel someplace warm, like Florida. As in Springsteen’s song, the dreams of a sun-filled paradise directly juxtaposes their dismal small-town home.
However, Burns presents a unique twist to the song- these characters are not so young anymore. Both Charlie and Claudia have reached a crossrods in their lives. Society views them as too young to indulge in “childish” escapist daydreams. Rather, they should settle down into the adult aspirations of a nuclear family. The pair reflect the various small-town characters which populate Springsteen’s landscape. To quote “Badlands,” both Charlie and Claudia “spend their life waiting for a moment that just don’t come.” Too afraid to make a move, they remain complacent and static.
The amusement park rises bold and stark
Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist
I wanna die with you Wendy on the street tonight
In an everlasting kiss
are evoked in one of the most unabashedly romantic sequences in the film. Charlie and Claudia share a passionate kiss on the beach shores, the bright sun filling the frame and illuminating their embrace. Wendy and her lover come to life in this angelic portrait of love.
Springsteen’s music makes its first diegetic appearance during a scene at the laundromat. “One Step Up” from the Tunnel of Love album plays softly on the radio. Charlie remarks on the song, and Claudia confirms: “You know I love all his stuff.”
Springsteen’s lyrics narrate her inner turmoil as the song abandons the quiet radio to overlay Claudia contemplating her relationship with Charlie. At this point, she begins negotiating her devotion to her fiancee and the unresolved feelings for Charlie.
I’m the same old story same old act
One step up and two steps back
As in these lyrics, Claudia has been trapped in the monotony and repetition of her life. She works a the diner day in and day out and returns home to someone she is only with out of expectation rather than devotion. The step she longs to take- leaving her hometown- is forever on the horizion but one she fears to reach. Although Springsteen retains a male point-of view:
When I look at myself I don’t see
The man I wanted to be
Somewhere along the line I slipped off track
I’m caught movin’ one step up and two steps back
the lyrics are transferred onto Claudia. Now that Charlie is back in her life, she questions the view of her self and circumstances. She has always longed to be so much more than a housewive and a waitress.
The next two sequences features two Springsteen songs concurrently, “I’m on Fire” and “Valentine’s Day.” The pulsating sexuality of “I’m on Fire” subtextually conveys the lingering attraction they still share. The song plays as the two prepare for their date. They change and determine the merit of their looks in front of the mirror. This is not a simple or casual reunion of an ex-couple. “I’m on Fire” presents the seductive promise of their reunion, preluding their reconnection in the motel room.
“Valentine’s Day” plays as their date continues.
One hand’s tremblin’ over my heart
It’s pounding baby like it’s gonna bust right on through
And it ain’t gonna stop till I’m alone again with you
The lyrics continue to subtextually convey the underlaying passion of their reunion and the electric chemstiry they share.
Ironically, the lyrics:
A friend of mine became a father last night
When we spoke in his voice I could hear the light
play as the characters discuss their aborted child. Edward Burns shares that he wants to be a father again, but Claudia reveals that she can no longer have children.The pair share a dance as the song continues. The simplicity of this sweet and romantic song conveys the power of their relationship, it is the beautiful center in their claustophobic small-town life. The song closes as their dance fades into a kiss in a motel room:
So hold me close honey say you’re forever mine
And tell me you’ll be my lonely valentine
No Looking Back reverts the male agency of Springsteen’s narrators to its female character. We can imagine Charlie singing the lines in “Thunder Road,”
All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey, what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well, the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting on down the tracks
promising Claudia paradise if only she will follow him. However, in No Looking Back, the Mary character leaves on her own. The film’s closing shot focuses on Claudia as she drives the car herself, leaving her small-town alone and on her own terms. This uniquely reverts the White Knight tropes in Springsteen’s work. Edward Burns, in one of his best films, manages to both mobilize and dismantle Springsteenian themes.