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The Bikeriders Review

We review Jeff Nichols’s highly anticipated and star-studded The Bikeriders.

PLOT: A Chicago biker gang rises in prominence throughout the sixties, only to eventually shift from a family-centred club into something more sinister and dangerous.

REVIEW: To say that I’ve been looking forward to The Bikeriders would be a major understatement. The director, Jeff Nichols, is a favorite of mine, and this is his first movie since his 2016 double-header of Midnight Special and Loving. The wait for this one has seemed extra long, with it initially slated for a 2023 release through Searchlight, only for them to eventually sell the film to Focus Features, who’ve decided to position it as a unique piece of summer counter-programming. This might be a wise choice, given the starry cast (who we interviewed recently), led by a strong trio of performances by Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, and Tom Hardy. 

Many will compare this to Goodfellas, with the movie giving off strong vibes reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s classic as the film starts. Eventually, it settles into a more elegiac tale. While some automatically associate biker gangs with crime, the film goes through pains to show that this wasn’t always the case, with the pivot towards organized crime being something that crept up on the gang’s founders. Tom Hardy’s Johnny is the gang’s mastermind, who holds down a job and supports a family, with this just being a way to bring together like-minded bike enthusiasts. In the sixties, this was a culture that was looked down on as thuggish, but Johnny, who openly models himself on Marlon Brando in The Wild One, is no thug.

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The film is based on a volume of photography (also called “The Bikeriders”) by Danny Lyon, played in the movie by Mike Faist. While his work with the clubs is dramatized, the gang depicted here, the Vandals MC, is fictional. They serve as a vehicle for us to see how bike subculture was somewhat co-opted by the more violent gangs in the post-Vietnam era, with Johnny’s response to any challenge “fists or knives” old fashioned in a world where any such challenge would soon be met with gunfire.

The Bikeriders Review

Yet, Hardy’s Johnny isn’t the lead here. The film is told through the eyes of Jodie Comer’s Kathy, an ordinary gal out of Chicago who, after an ill-advised foray into the mayhem-soaked Vandals clubhouse, finds herself fascinated by Austin Butler’s too-cool-for-school Benny. While the film’s protagonist, Kathy, is more of an entree into the milieu than a full-fledged character, as we don’t learn much about her other than that she becomes Benny’s wife. The story’s heart is the relationship between Benny and Johnny, with Kathy playing tug-of-war with Johnny over her husband. Both seem infatuated with him, but part of his appeal is how aloof he is, with him unwilling and unable to commit to either. Kathy wants him as a husband, which he’s only semi-interested in, while Johnny wants him as his right-hand man, which – again – Benny doesn’t want to be or need to be. 

If ever you wanted to know what a movie that starred Marlon Brando and James Dean would have been like, The Bikeriders gives you an idea, as those are the icons both men seem to be channelling. Butler seems like a significant star waiting to happen, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off him as he commands the screen so fully. By comparison, Comer’s role is a touch bland – perhaps by design – but she vanishes into it, adopting a kind of Illinois-style drawl that might turn off some viewers but is certainly an interesting approach and feels authentic to the milieu. 

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Jeff Nichols has made a lean movie, running under two hours. This is the rare film where I almost hope there’s a more extended version, as I found some of the side characters fascinating and worth further development. Standouts to me include Michael Shannon as a wild member who remembers being turned away from the draft board as “undesirable,” while Norman Reedus shows up sporting a terrifying set of teeth as a ferocious-looking but affable biker who joins the crew. 

In effect, the film is an impressionist take on a very short-lived chapter in Americana, with the bike gangs of the fifties and sixties ultimately co-opted into organized crime, with gangdom itself now seen as sinister even if that initially wasn’t the intention. The Bikeriders is an elegy for that lost time and is thoroughly engaging from start to finish. No one makes movies like Jeff Nichols does, and the fact that I left The Bikeriders wanting even more shows you how good it is. It’s rare I look at my watch during a movie hoping there’s more or it left, but that’s what happened to me here quite a bit, so take that as high praise.

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