THE STORY – Kathy (Comer), a strong-willed member of the Vandals who’s married to a wild, reckless bikerider named Benny (Butler), recounts the Vandals’ evolution over the course of a decade, beginning as a local club of outsiders united by good times, rumbling bikes, and respect for their strong, steady leader Johnny (Hardy). Over the years, Kathy tries her best to navigate her husband’s untamed nature and his allegiance to Johnny, with whom she feels she must compete for Benny’s attention. As life in the Vandals gets more dangerous, and the club threatens to become a more sinister gang, Kathy, Benny, and Johnny are forced to make choices about their loyalty to the club and to each other.
THE CAST – Austin Butler, Jodie Comer, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman, Beau Knapp, Emory Cohen, Karl Glusman, Toby Wallace, Norman Reedus & Happy Anderson
THE TEAM – Jeff Nichols (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
At a tipping point in American culture, when morals, values, politics, and ideals were changing, filmmaker Jeff Nichols has chosen 1968-1974 as the period to set his latest film in examining a time and its people with his usual dose of empathy and introspection. Inspired by the photo book of the same name by Danny Lyon, “The Bikeriders” is an evocative and masculine piece of storytelling. Representing Nichols’ most commercial film to date, it conjures memories of “Goodfellas,” “Easy Rider,” and “Sons Of Anarchy” but his biker story of brotherhood and its crumbling dissolution maintains the filmmaker’s established voice while revealing new layers for what he’s capable achieving if given the opportunity by the Hollywood studio system.
Kathy (Jodie Comer) is a tough southern woman who becomes infatuated with a hotheaded, reckless bike rider named Benny (Austin Butler). Drawn to his cool intensity and high sex appeal, the two get married after only five weeks. Benny is considered the number two and heir to the Chicago-based motorcycle outlaws club known as the Vandals under the leadership of Johnny (Tom Hardy). In a series of interviews years later with Danny (Mike Fast), the writer and photographer whose work the film is based on, Kathy recounts the Vandals’ growth over a decade and escalation towards more violent and aggressive behavior. What started as a good thing for the sake of community and brotherhood amongst the avid motorcycle fans slowly turns into something more dangerous and sinister as Benny is caught between his allegiance to Johnny and his marriage to Kathy.
Jeff Nichols has always excelled at focusing his stories on his characters by allowing them the room to deliver exceptional performances. “The Bikeriders” achieves this for Butler, Comer, and Hardy. However, whether it’s because the supporting cast is too large or Nichols’ reach was too high, many supporting players, such as Boyd Holbrook, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, and Norman Reedus, to name a few, are left in the dust in favor of the film’s leads, rendering “The Bikeriders” as a solid but dramatically uneven film that’s living in the shadow of other movies which have told similar stories with more power but rarely with this much honesty.
Hot off the heels of his Best Actor Oscar nomination for “Elvis” last year, Austin Butler oozes more sex appeal than ever before. His introductory shot, wearing a sweaty sleeveless shirt with his biceps and triceps stretched out as he leans forward on a pool table, a cigarette in his mouth as the camera slowly pushes in on his face subliminally clues you in that this is a James Dean level movie star, and Nichols knows precisely how to frame him as such. Butler’s calm exterior is clearly fueled by a rough, volcanic interior that makes him an ever-compelling performer to watch, even if the screenplay sometimes lets him down by giving him too little to say in certain scenes.
Tom Hardy puts on yet another “voice” as the club’s small but rough and intimidating leader. You would think a character like his would want to put on a tough guy voice and persona, but Hardy surprises at nearly every turn, bringing a fragility to Johnny that feels like it could crack at any moment, whether at his expense or someone else’s. Hardy has always been a mesmerizing performer to watch, and the same is true here as his leadership of the club is constantly questioned by those on the inside, on the outside, and even by the man himself as its changes and expansion bring about challenges that can be life-threatening.
But it’s Comer who is the real standout. She owns the entire movie and steals it from all the machismo men around her. A once-in-a-lifetime chameleon actress who can transform herself into anyone she puts her mind to, she does so yet again as the strong-willed and freely outspoken wife to a man whose affection for her is always in competition with his love for the Vandals. Comer, sporting a thick southern accent, chain-smokes and rattles off anecdotes and asides with a magnetism in her interviews that few other actors can capture. Her eyes always bulging, her body always on the move, but through all the “you knows” and other quirks her character displays, her commanding empathy is warm and effective. There is simply no measurement of her brilliant talent.
Comer narrates the entire movie in typical Scorsese fashion as the film introduces freeze frames, and quick cuts to flashes of violence, all backed by a period-accurate rock n’ roll soundtrack. Nichols’ work owes a considerable debt to the works of Scorsese, as he tells a crime story rooted in character while portraying a time that can only be described as a simpler way of life before the good times ended. Those who clung to the past out of sheer loyalty and nostalgia for what the intentions of the club were founded upon are forever changed while the path of change or, in the case of Benny, possible abandonment is possibly too much to bear. It makes for a compelling drama, punctured by brutal moments of violence and light-hearted moments of comedy, to make each character feel fully dimensional, even if the screenplay could’ve afforded to flesh out more of the supporting characters and tie each of the main players’ journeys together in a more fulfilling manner. Still, despite these backfires, “The Bikeriders” has enough gas in its tank to make it a roaring successful return for Nichols after a seven-year absence since “Loving.” If this is to be his first foray into studio-backed filmmaking after years of independent storytelling, then “The Bikeriders” is proof he’s done it under his own terms, playing his own rules.