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Review: The Bikeriders

Towards the middle of Jeff Nichols' The Bikeriders, there is a scene at a party that serves as a shorthand for the change this crew of outsiders faces. A woman is almost raped, someone is shooting heroin in the kitchen and a founding member of the Vandals is beat up by the new generation. All of this happens in one night rather ridiculously to signify the end of the era for the biker gang. It is about as deep as it sounds. This also serves as a shorthand for the film, one often full of surface pleasures but lacking any nuance or real substance.

The Bikeriders is often like flipping through the photo-book by Danny Lyon, of which the film is based off of, but not reading any of it. You get a sense of the atmosphere of this specific time and place but no sense of the characters within it. The script has little interest in character development or forward plot momentum. Instead, we get a serviceable mid-West take on Goodfellas for a bit before the film sputters to a dull second half trip.

One of the first things we see is Benny (Austin Butler) in his jacket. Two locals at a bar tell him to take off his colors. "You'd have to kill me to get this jacket off," he tells them. That is about all we need to know of Benny. Similarly Kathy (Jodie Comer) has one dimension, that she for some reason is madly devoted to Benny. Benny is not good to her but the film rarely gives her point-of-view any time. Instead Benny represents a romanticized and problematic old-school version of masculinity that The Bikeriders is a tribute to.

Kathy and Vandals leader Johnny (Tom Hardy) vie for Benny's soul and loyalty. But Benny's soul belongs to the open road. That is about all we get for plot here aside from the eventual evolution of the gang. However The Bikeriders still has things to enjoy. Nichols may keep things pretty chaste for a movie about bikers who mainly drink, party and ride but he knows how to depict the appeal of this life. The actors, each donning incredible accents, all seem to be having a good time here, even if the script keeps their characters thinly drawn. Seriously, the accent work here is epic and Comer almost gives Hardy a run for the most outrageous one.

The film is structured around an interview that Kathy is giving to a young reporter played by Mike Faist. This framing device does little for the film but it does curiously tell this story from the perspective of a woman on the outside. Kathy meets Benny in a biker bar, leading to a sequence where she clings to Benny on his Harley as the Vandals ride behind them, encapsulated by the haunting notes of the Shangri-Las’ “Out In The Streets.” This moment captures the allure and danger of the biker lifestyle.

Tom Hardy delivers a notable performance as Johnny, the founder of the Vandals, inspired by Marlon Brando’s character in "The Wild One." His struggle becomes evident as the Vietnam War and the counterculture movement redefine the biker scene. Hardy’s nuanced performance, juxtaposed with Butler’s more subdued Benny, creates a dynamic tension that underscores the film’s central conflicts. The supporting cast provides the film with memorable performances. Boyd Holbrook’s Cal provides a sensitive counterpoint to the more rugged gang members, while Michael Shannon’s Zipco adds a darkly comic edge.

However, the film falters in its portrayal of Kathy and Benny’s relationship. Despite Comer and Butler’s efforts, their romance lacks the passion and depth necessary to anchor the story. Their interactions often feel repetitive, with Kathy repeatedly urging Benny to abandon his dangerous lifestyle. This dynamic grows tiresome and detracts from the film’s emotional impact. Additionally, the film's other female characters are relegated to the background, serving as mere accessories to their male counterparts.

Nichols’ script also glosses over the darker aspects of the Vandals’ ethos. The gang’s use of white supremacist iconography, for instance, is introduced but never fully explored, leaving a significant thematic gap. This oversight weakens the film’s historical and cultural authenticity, reducing the complexity of its characters and their motivations.

Adam Stone’s lush cinematography and Julie Monroe’s brisk editing effectively capture the visceral thrill of the open road and the camaraderie among the gang members. The film's early scenes, filled with kinetic energy and vibrant character interactions, are among its best, evoking a palpable sense of freedom and rebellion.

Ultimately, "The Bikeriders" is a visually striking yet uneven film. Nichols’ nostalgic portrayal of the biker subculture offers moments of exhilaration and insight but falls short of delivering a fully realized narrative. The film’s myth-making, while captivating, lacks the substance needed to fully engage with its historical and cultural context. In trying to immortalize the free-spirited bikers, Nichols presents an idealized vision that, much like the Vandals themselves, struggles to find its true identity.



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