Film Review: The Bikeriders


The Bikeriders
Director: Jeff Nichols
Recency Enterprises and Tri-State Pictures
In Theaters: 06.21

The gritty gangster films of the ‘70s through the ‘90s are a defining chapter of American cinema, as are the biker movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  It was inevitable that one day they would get together and produce offspring, and that’s exactly what Jeff NicholsThe Bikeriders is: the love child of Goodfellas and The Wild One.

In 1960s Chicago, the Vandals are born. A motorcycle club founded by a popular local figure named Johnny (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant), the Vandals are rough and uncouth, but they provide a sense of meaning and belonging to people who can’t find it elsewhere. After meeting at a neighborhood bar, a young woman named Kathy (Jodie Comer, Free Guy, The Last Duel) finds herself irresistibly drawn to Benny (Austin Butler, Elvis, Dune: Part Two), a handsome new member who is fiercely loyal to Johnny. As the landscape shifts around them, mirroring the changing country, the club undergoes a metamorphosis from a sanctuary for societal misfits to a brutal group of thugs with increasing involvement in illegal activities. When it becomes clear just how dangerous things are getting, Benny must choose between his feelings for Kathy and his allegiance to the club.

The Bikeriders is a fictionalized version of  Danny Lyon’s book of the same name that chronicles The Outlaws Motorcycle Club, following an interview plot structure where Lyon (Mike Faist, West Side Story, Challengers) poses questions to Kathy. The voice-over narration, the frequent use of music from the period and the general tone are so reminiscent of Goodfellas that it’s hard not to see the film as an outright imitation of Martin Scorsese, though at least it’s a much less gimmicky and self-indulgent one than Joker. Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special) can’t equal Scorsese’s precision and mastery of cinematic language, though he certainly can tell a story. The Bikeriders is hardly a plot-driven film; it’s more a series of character-driven vignettes than anything else. While none of the characters feel particularly fresh, they are human enough to be interesting. Nichols compellingly captures the perils of blind loyalty and the dangers of becoming consumed by a need to be a part of something at any cost—and to be defined by it—which makes the film far more relatable than I was expecting it to be. 

Butler is an intensely charismatic screen presence and makes almost as strong a James Dean-type as he did an Elvis Presley. Despite being the ostensible lead, Benny is one of the characters we get to know the least, remaining a romanticized enigma throughout. Hardy hasn’t been this good in a long time, and while it’s a bit of a scenery-chewing performance, it’s an effective one. Comer is even better, with a mesmerizing magnetism that drives the film. Comer brings Kathy vividly to life, and her bashful smile when she thinks about Benny is so overpowering that it lights up the entire theater in a way that makes this a career-defining role. The ensemble is uniformly excellent, with frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel) also giving his best work in recent memory as a troubled Army reject named Zipco. The perennially underrated Boyd Holbrook (Logan, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) is wonderfully natural as the mechanic, Hal, and Faist is likably effective as Danny Lyon.

The Bikeriders isn’t the best dramatic film of the summer, though it’s a strong one and it stands the best chance of finding a wide audience. There’s a strong mystique to it, and it’s easy to see the film gaining a devoted following in the years to come. Image is everything for a movie like this one, as it is with the bikers themselves, and while The Bikeriders isn’t a true classic, it does a convincing enough job posing as one that it might find itself riding straight into Oscar territory. –Patrick Gibbs

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