The Bikeriders

Austin Butler, Jodie Comer and Tom Hardy rev up this intimate and absorbing biker saga, which draws from a 60s photojournalism book of the same name.
Sarah Ward
Published on July 02, 2024


Can a dream ever exist for more than a fleeting moment? That isn't just a question for oneirology, the field of psychology focused on studying the involuntary visions of our slumbers, but also applies whenever tales of motorcycle clubs rev across the screen. Stories of hitting the open road on two wheels, finding camaraderie and community in a group of likeminded outsiders, and perhaps discovering a purpose along the way are stories of chasing dreams — of freedom, of belonging, of mattering, of meaning in a world seemingly so devoid of it if you don't fit in the traditional sense. So it was in TV series Sons of Anarchy and in Australian film 1%, two titles set within the roar and rush of biker gangs in recent years. So it was in The Wild One, 1953's Marlon Brando-starring classic that immortalised the query "what are you rebelling against?" and the reply "whaddaya got?". Now, so it equally proves in The Bikeriders, about a 60s and 70s leather- and denim-wearing, motorbike-riding crew formed after infatuation got motors runnin' when founder Johnny (Tom Hardy, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) saw The Wild One on TV.

A family man, Johnny has a dream for the Vandals MC out of America's midwest — and so does Benny (Austin Butler, Dune: Part Two), the closest thing that the club has to a spirit animal. The latter is introduced alone at a bar wearing his colours, refusing to take them off even when violence springs at the hands of unwelcoming patrons. He won't be tamed, the sixth feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols after Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special and Loving establishes early. He won't be anyone but his smouldering, swaggering, rebel-without-a-cause self, either. Courtesy of the Vandals, he not only has the space to stand firm, but the assurance. He's a lone wolf-type, but knows that he has the devoted backing of the pack anyway. Johnny has fashioned the gang as a tribe and a place to call home for those who can't locate it elsewhere, and is open about how his fellow bikers need Benny — and how he does as well — to look up to.

The Bikeriders is the story of Johnny and Benny, and also of the Illinois-accented Kathy (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve), whose outsider-upon-outsider perspective comprises the movie's narration (and gives it a Martin Scorsese-esque, Goodfellas-style angle). She's wary when on her debut encounter with the Vandals, also at a bar. Still, the way that Nichols and his regular cinematographer Adam Stone (Waco: American Apocalypse) shoot it, Kathy has no choice but to fall for the brooding Benny from the instant that she locks eyes on him at the pool table that night. Moments after she leaves the watering hole, she's clutching him close as they thunder off on his bike. Five weeks later, they're married. As she talks through the tumultuous and absorbing details to Danny (Mike Faist, Challengers) — Lyon, that is, the IRL photojournalist with the 1968 book that shares The Bikeriders' name, inspired the film and provides its basis sometimes on an image-by-image level — what springs from there is a love triangle of sorts, as Johnny and Kathy both see different routes for Benny, and for their respective dreams and futures.

Making a much-appreciated return to filmmaking eight years after Loving — in-between, an Alien Nation remake didn't come to fruition, and he dropped out of helming A Quiet Place: Day One — Nichols fictionalises fact with The Bikeriders. Lyon snapped and spent time with Chicago's Outlaws Motorcycle Club. Its name doesn't remain in the feature, but the monikers of plenty of folks in its orbit, including Kathy, Benny and Johnny, plus other Vandals members Cal (Boyd Holbrook, Justified: City Primeval), Cockroach (Emory Cohen, Blue Bayou) and Zipco (Michael Shannon, The Flash), all do. The vibe as The Bikeriders hums is of a picture and the team bringing it to life each stepping into history, into photos that immortalised it and into a mood just as firmly, then spinning the results into a movie. That's a pivotal and purposeful sensation when the line between dreams and reality is being examined. While actuality rarely feels illusory when you're in it, the ultimate that anyone is ever pursuing — rebellion, authenticity and acceptance here, for example — so often proves ephemeral.

Little in the way of surprises might fuel The Bikeriders' narrative, especially if you've watched past biker fare — Lyon's book predates Easy Rider by a year — but twists and turns are never the point. Instead, the anticipated cycles keep turning as Nichols prods whether the dream that he's capturing, as his photographer inspiration did before him, was ever destined for more than transience. Johnny's version of the club — and the solace that someone such as the scruffy Zipco, who gives voice to securing a niche he isn't otherwise afforded in a speech about being turned down for Vietnam enlistment, is seeking — withers as the Vandals grows. Rides and hangouts erupt in scuffles and fights over power. Attitudes among newcomers make the OG crew seem positively gentle. Benny struggles, too, caught between two sets of the last thing that he wants from anyone: expectations.

As it gets the wind ruffling Butler's hair and the bouffant of Comer's locks defying gravity, Nichols has crafted a film that plays so eagerly like a throwback with such a lived-in atmosphere, but also with probing intentions pumping through every second. It presents. It unpacks. It motors along with the throbbing and the cruisiness alike of an engine letting rip on long Sunday-afternoon drive, digging into this slice of countercultural Americana and the hopes it stands for in the process. As its director did with Shotgun Stories almost two decades ago now, The Bikeriders also has tortured masculinity in its sights, another realm where visions of perfection are fated to crash. And as Nichols constantly returns to in his filmography, how desperately someone — everyone — attempts to hold onto what they love and dream about also slicks this intimate flick like oil.

The longer that The Bikeriders goes on, the heartier that the initial Vandals tussle with their expanding roster, as more and more faces and agendas join its ranks. The feature itself has no such regrets, including when Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon), Karl Glusman (Civil War), Toby Wallace (The Royal Hotel) and Damon Herriman (The Artful Dodger) help flesh out the cast. Mirroring the club with Benny, the movie benefits from having Butler at its heart, though. In a strong on-screen year to rival 2022's Elvis whirlwind, which nabbed him a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, plus an Oscar nomination, he follows Dune: Part Two and Masters of the Air with a magnetic, layered, revealing and committed performance while so frequently uttering little aloud. The also-exceptional Comer and ever-commanding Hardy aren't stuck in their co-star's shadow, as their characters happily are with Benny, but this film about the allure of the ideal knows how to make that exact notion its vista. Unlike everything that the Vandals aspires to encapsulate, however, Butler never falters.


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