The Bikeriders

The Bikeriders

2024, R, 116 min. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Starring Austin Butler, Jodie Comer, Tom Hardy, Mike Faist, Michael Shannon, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman.

REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., June 21, 2024

For a director whose filmography only dates back to 2007 with debut feature Shotgun Stories, there’s something charmingly old-fashioned about Jeff Nichols. Despite creating some of the best films of the 21st century, Nichols has – through both accident and intent – managed to avoid getting swept up in a major Hollywood franchise. And now he’s back with The Bikeriders, many years removed from his last project (2016’s Loving), but still working with some of the brightest stars of Hollywood. It’s nice to know the old ways still hold true for some of us.

In 1963, photojournalist Danny Lyon began interviewing fellow members of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club. The resulting book – first published in 1968 – shined a light on American counterculture and serves as the inspiration for Nichols’ lightly fictionalized film of the same name. And much like the book, The Bikeriders is structured around a series of interviews between Danny (Challengers’ Faist) and members of the Vandals, a Chicago-based motorcycle gang filled with thirtysomething suburbanites with an independent streak a mile long.

We are first introduced to the Vandals through Kathy (Comer), the skeptical future wife of baby-faced gang member Benny (Butler, on a roll from his Oscar-nominated role in Elvis and a buzzy turn this spring as Dune: Part Two psychopath Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen). Benny is a particular favorite of Johnny (Hardy), the leader who dreamed up the membership rules for the rest of the gang. But as the Vandals expand beyond the borders of Chicago and find themselves swept up in the changing economic landscape of 1960s America, Kathy’s misgivings about the future of the Vandals begins to take on a darker turn.

For all the bluster and violence found onscreen in The Bikeriders, there’s an innocence to the film that speaks to an America in transition. One of our first encounters with Butler’s Benny is also one of Hollywood’s most anticlimactic chase scenes: After successfully outrunning the local police, Benny’s bike runs out of gas in Illinois farmland, and the film lingers on its star as he patiently waits for police to appear on the horizon. Key moments throughout the film are captured with this kind of understated approach, allowing the world to feel far more lived-in than the standard biopic – dodgy accents be damned.

Until things go wrong. On the surface, the downfall of the Vandals seems to echo any number of film narratives about organized crime, including the untimely death of a key lieutenant and the links between narcotics and a brotherhood spiraling out of control. Dig beneath the surface, though, and it’s clear that Nichols has more on his mind than gangsters and motorcycles. The original Vandals were a group of working-class suburbanites who channeled their frustrations into a romanticized counterculture movement. It isn’t long before their performative aggression is subsumed by genuine anger that transforms the Vandals into the criminals they pretend to be.

Soon, The Bikeriders becomes another Nichols deconstruction of modern masculinity. Frequent collaborator Michael Shannon may only spend a few minutes onscreen, but his character – a draft reject who would rather threaten his brother with physical violence than support his college aspirations – drives home the intellectual and cultural divides that breed resentment within the gang. And then there’s Benny. Benny is a free spirit whose genuine acceptance of self brings out both a pride and a jealousy in Johnny that borders on the homoerotic. The battle for Benny’s attention between Kathy and Johnny is the heart of the film; it is also a battle that both characters seem destined to lose.

So while some filmmakers fade into obscurity during their time away from the screen, The Bikeriders is a welcome reminder that Nichols’ thoughtful explorations of economic tension and toxic masculinity are more relevant now than ever. There’s a lot of richness to the stories that Nichols chooses to tell about America. Here’s hoping audiences turn out for this Austin Butler movie as much as they did for the last one.

Read Richard Whittaker's interview with filmmaker Jeff Nichols.

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The Bikeriders, Jeff Nichols, Austin Butler, Jodie Comer, Tom Hardy, Mike Faist, Michael Shannon, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman

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