Using photographer Danny Lyon’s iconic The Bikeriders’ imagery as a jumping-off point, Jeff Nichols’ latest feature imagines a fictionalized Chicago motorcycle club, the Vandals. Motorcycle club culture might be a distinctly American phenomenon, but Nichols casts two Brits in the lead, with varying returns: Jodie Comer as Kathy narrates the story in a clear Goodfellas conceit, adopting a Midwest accent flashy (and divisive) enough to ensure sustained awards-season chatter; Tom Hardy is Johnny, a truck driver who gets the idea to start a motorcycle club while watching Marlon Brando’s The Wild One. This low-stakes “why not?” starting point for founding the club works early in the film, until, following the Goodfellas trajectory, it all comes crashing down. Without Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing prowess, The Bikeriders’ rise-and-fall narrative ultimately plays too conventional.
Fresh off Elvis, newly minted megastar Austin Butler stars as Benny, a pensive biker prone to reckless behavior who––after a meet-cute that could not occur in today’s culture––is also Kathy’s husband. Butler largely functions as a pretty face here, and while that face is nearly pretty enough to mask his deeply underwritten role, it’s just too difficult to understand why Kathy puts up with the trouble he consistently brings her. Said trouble is first mentioned in a freeze frame that ends the film’s opening sequence and, unfortunately, plays like a riff on the classic meme. The love story at the center of The Bikeriders is not built on solid ground, and what Kathy sees beyond Benny’s blue eyes and high cheekbones is a mystery throughout the film.
Rounding out the Vandals are Nichols regular Michael Shannon––plus Boyd Holbrook, Emory Cohen, Karl Glusman, and a few others. Certain Vandals shine over others, including Cohen’s “Cockroach,” who eats bugs as a bit, and Shannon’s “Zipco,” who delivers a touching, drunken speech about being denied the ability to serve in Vietnam. The rest are as underwritten as Benny, and it’s hard not to imagine what someone of Richard Linklater’s talent could’ve done when filling out such an ensemble.
Nichols’ classic filmmaking sensibilities are a peculiar fit with the required grubbiness that comes with characters who work on and ride custom motorcycles as a hobby. “Cockroach” discusses how much he loves getting dirty while sporting fresh clothes and perfectly coiffed hair (and he might never appear dirty in the film). A Vandals t-shirt might be appropriately greasy, but the denim jacket over that t-shirt appears fully pressed, like they just picked it up from the cleaner. Drawing inspiration from a photo book that captures Midwest Americana feels more like something you’d read in a note from a fashion director relaying their inspiration for an upcoming fall collection.
Despite clues to clear budgetary constraints (a lack of close-ups on the bikes themselves, for example), Nichols’ directing talent and visual acumen largely keep them from being too much of an issue. Frequent collaborator DP Adam Stone lenses the Midwest, in which Southern Ohio was shot for Chicago, in cool blues with sunlight hitting the actors at distinct angles. (It’s worth noting these colors when the only still released for the movie is in black-and-white.) A more pressing issue is Nichols’ script that has zero patience for subtext: it is always spoken out-loud, either by Vandals or Comer as the narrator. At one moment, to avoid the cold, the charter members of the Vandals show up to a rumble in cars while the next generation ride in on their bikes, weather be damned. This could be a fun visual contrast to spot as a viewer––if only Kathy’s voiceover didn’t immediately point it out.
There is cinematic power in witnessing choppers rip down the highway in widescreen, and a major element of any motorcycle club includes going on “runs,” i.e. long rides with the group where you might camp out or meet up with a fellow chapter in a nearby city for brews. In The Bikeriders, a Vandal mentions a recent run to Columbus, Ohio. But we never see the run. Easy Rider is one long run––it understands the allure. Whether it was due to a script issue or budget restrictions, the absence of any real run or extended riding sequence looms large. Similarly, on her first ride with Benny, Kathy describes via voiceover the overwhelming experience of first hearing and then seeing the Vandals emerge from the darkness on their bikes to join them. We have to mostly take her word for it, because the score and her narration compete for space amongst the symphony of the engines’ roars. There are occasional glimpses into raw horsepower, but they are not prioritized. One only needs to look at the recent Ferrari teaser trailer to see what loud engines on their own, sans score, can stir in one’s heart.
The Bikeriders is at its best when it’s a loose look at an inconsequential motorcycle club in ’60s Chicago. In our current era, where real subcultures are generally extinct from the Internet’s monopoly on shaping culture, a straightforward, fun, albeit idealistic look at what public community can offer men would’ve been enough of a statement for audiences to consider. But in its second half, after a time jump, The Bikeriders attempts to tackle the transition from the idealism of the ’60s to the darker realities of the ’70s. This theme has been covered ad nauseam across countless mediums, recently in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and even in two films that directly feature motorcycles or motorcycle gangs: the aforementioned Easy Rider and 1970’s Gimme Shelter.
The Bikeriders premiered at the 50th Telluride Film Festival and will be released in theaters on December 1, 2023.