Around five years ago, director Jeff Nichols came across a book of photography by Danny Lyon called The Bikeriders, which showed a group of greased up, grizzled motorcycle riders in the Chicago area in the early 1960s. Nichols mentioned to the audience at the opening day screening of the film at the Telluride Film Festival that he wanted to make a film that put the audience in the same mood he was in when he first saw those black and white images that play in the closing credits of the film, which was a true sense of curiosity about this group, this time, and place. In his first film in seven years, Nichols is able to give the audience an authentic experience of this dark world from an esthetics standpoint but is unable to connect a compelling enough narrative to reach the impressive level of quality of his previous work.
Told mostly through flashbacks via interviews from the 1970s, we find Danny Lyon (Mike Faist, in a wasted performance) sitting in a laundromat interviewing a group of women. But his fascination is with only one of them, Kathy (Jodie Comer), who was in a relationship with one of the most notable members of the Vandals Chicago biker gang, Benny (Austin Butler). Using an unrecognizable (and often distracting) Chicago accent, Comer introduces Kathy’s story as a girl who walks into a bar in 1965 to meet her friend for a drink and walks out with a brand new life. From the moment she sits down, she is hit on by many members of the Vandals, but once she sees Benny, they are attracted to each other like moths to a flame. Even though she has a boyfriend back home, that doesn’t stop Benny from making his move, and Kathy from falling in love with him. Butler and Comer have a solid on screen chemistry, as their characters get married only five months after meeting each other. But the screenplay doesn’t fully commit to showing us any of the intimacy or raw sexual connection these two gorgeous people have when they gaze at one another from across the bar. Instead, the film opts for Comer to tell us about their romantic connection, and therefore it is one of the glaring weaknesses in Nichol’s script. Comer, while having to do a lot of the heavy lifting in this film, gives a passible performance. It’s by no means a bad performance, it just doesn’t reach the heights of her previous work.
But behind Benny’s dashing good looks lies a wildness that can’t be tamed, which makes him a valuable asset to have on your side if you are a member of the Vandals. His quiet demeanor is that of a time bomb about to go off at any second, patiently waiting for his chance to get in on some action. Anytime he sees one of his fellow members get into a confrontation, he is always the first one to take a swing and ask questions later. His bad boy persona is only matched by his sense of commitment to the group, as the Vandals are all that he has in his life till he meets Kathy, and even then, he takes the side of the group over her for the majority of the film. In a mostly quiet performance but confident performance, Butler is able to bring life into a mostly surface level character, who is torn between the brotherhood that has become his family, and the woman that truly loves him.
In using a Goodfellas-esque story structure, Comer’s voiceover provides us introductions to every key member of the Vandals, including their intimidating leader Johnny (Tom Hardy), who got the idea for the biker club after seeing Marlon Brando sport a leather jacket in The Wild Ones late one night on television. From that moment on, the group was forged, bringing in lost souls in search of a purpose and giving them the key, and wheels, to start a brand new life. Hardy brings his usual commanding on screen presence as a calculated leader who is protective of the group he has created and the people who make up the group. In his usual style, Hardy’s performance features his signature grunts and cold stares that strike fear into the hearts of all around him. While he is good in the film, it does feel like he has done this type of performance before, making it not as compelling of work compared to Butler or Comer.
While he has a right hand man in Brucie (a fantastic, underutilized Damon Herriman), and mostly hangs with rowdy members like Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Cockroach (Emory Cohen), and Zipco (Michael Shannon, a Nichols regular), Johnny is drawn to Benny much like Kathy is, and as is the case in a lot of crime movies, he sees a great deal of potential in Benny as someone he could hand the Vandals off to one day. The power for Benny’s soul between Kathy and Johnny, while completely on the nose for movies like this, is actually the most compelling part of the film, especially when Benny gets into a fight with two guys at a bar and they break his right ankle, putting his riding days in jeopardy. Hardy and Comer have a fantastic yet short scene talking about the ownership of Benny at the gang’s bar, each putting their case as to why they feel this man is a necessity to who they are and the dreams they want to live out. But again, due to his unfocused script, what could’ve been a really effective, layered power play in the heart of the motorcycle world becomes a wasted opportunity to break the mold and say something interesting about the male egos running around in this movie.
Instead of wrangling The Bikeriders into a tighter piece about his three main characters, Nichols opens the world up with the other members of the gang to allow this sense of community to shine. While this seems like a good approach in theory, it leads to a lot of conversations of the guys sitting around, drinking, and telling meaningless stories or pontificating about the world we live in. There is nothing really interesting said in these sequences, and given this time period, where the Vietnam War is destroying the innocence for men and women in the US and leaving them with a sense of aimlessness, the film barely scratches the surface in digging into the emotional fabric of what was a significant time period for these characters.
Another subplot follows The Kid, a young admirer (Toby Wallace) of the Vandals, who sees Johnny and the boys ride in through his town one day and becomes obsessed with the lifestyle. He then adopts their look, forms a crew, and sets out to join the gang that now gives him purpose. It then ultimately leads to a confrontation with Johnny then ends negatively and thus starts the downfall of the Vandals, as a new generation of riders have come to misunderstand the original formation of the group and have become too dangerous to control. By the time all of this unravels, nothing is surprising to the audience, and feels like a lesser crime drama that we have seen played out dozens of times before, as we see only heartache and regret come to Johnny, Benny, Kathy and the rest of the original Vandals.
From a technical standpoint, this is where the film shines the most. Cinematographer Adam Stone delivers some of his best work yet as he is able to give a pretty accurate look and feel at not only the time period presented but also films like Easy Rider that came out around the time the events of the movie took place and seemed to be a heavy influence on this film. Mix in some effective editing by Julie Monroe, period accurate production design, and costume design, and the foundation was set for Nichols to create his vision. He and his team have always been able to create environments for the audience to escape to, even if the narrative is lacking. It’s one of the reasons why he’s been one of the most interesting new American indie filmmakers of the modern era over the last decade. But the crafts and performances are not enough to save his new film which seemed to be lost somewhere in the execution and specificity on the page and conversion to the final product we see on the screen. Nichols might be leaning into a new, populist form of storytelling, and in doing so, loses a lot of the intimacy and precision from his previous films. It’s a shame that this project is missing those essential Nichols calling cards as this film was clearly something he was passionate about creating. The Bikeriders is a speed bump that Nichols and his team simply can’t get this star-studded vehicle over.
This review is from the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. 20th Century Studios will release The Bikeriders in theaters on December 1.
Photo: Kyle Kaplan/20th Century Studios