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Movie Reviews

‘The Bikeriders’ roars when chasing myth but sputters when trying to embody it

When it stumbles, it’s frustrating.

The Outlaw Biker is a hell of an image—a free spirit, bound not by laws but by brotherhood, making their way in the world through grease, grit, skill, and a powerful engine. The jackets, the colors, the flair, and the machines themselves. It’s an enduring piece of post-World War II US iconography, one that’s seduced and shaped everyone from romantics to jackasses to romantic jackasses.

With The Bikeriders, director/writer Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special) aims to dig into the myth and what makes people chase it. Director of Photography Adam Stone is a longtime Nichols collaborator, and his desaturated images beautifully capture the space between what is seen and what is true. Tom Hardy, Jodie Comer, and Austin Butler head a murderer’s row of players including longtime bike enthusiast Norman Reedus, Michael Shannon, Damon Herriman, Toby Wallace, Boyd Holbrook, and Challengers‘ Mike Faist. Nichols’ brother Ben and his band Lucero bring a banger of a closing credits song.

When The Bikeriders works, it’s enthralling. Nichols and company dig into the space between the image of the outlaw biker that Hardy’s Johnny sells intentionally and otherwise and the truth of the matter. When The Bikeriders stumbles, it’s frustrating. Nichols aims to embody the mythical biker at the same time as he breaks it down, and does not succeed.

The Bikeriders
Austin Butler’s Benny has the look but doesn’t get enough interiority to capture the Outlaw Biker’s feel. The Bikeriders, Focus Features.

Of The Bikeriders‘ central trio, Comer and Hardy get the strongest material. Comer’s Kathy lives on the fringes of the Chicago Vandals’ world, drawn to the beauty, charisma, and charm of Butler’s Benny. She loves him deeply and—to a point—respects Johnny as someone important to Benny. But the shine’s always been about them as people, not as the Vandals. At their best, the Vandals are where the disaffected find belonging. At their worst—which they slide into more and more as the years pass and the club balloons—they’re a gaggle of jackals pushing each other to get more vicious. A duel for club leadership goes from the climax of a club barbecue to a fight to the death in an abandoned parking lot. Camping trips go from somewhere someone can join in so long as they pay their share to ragers where there are too many strangers—too many of whom see women as property, not people. Comer’s story is the most consistent in The Bikeriders, and she delivers reliably solid, moving work.

Hardy’s performance as Johnny steadily improves as The Bikeriders dials into its specificities. His accent is, once again, vaguely Humungus, and it takes some getting used to, but once you’re on the wavelength, it works. Johnny’s a tough guy who knows his way around a fight and won’t stand for attacks on the Vandals. He’s both chasing and inadvertently selling an illusion. He’s a contentedly married father who fell in love with the immortal cool Marlon Brando brought to The Wild One and started the Vandals partly because he wanted to try and make that cool real. He’s not prepared for the club to take off how it does, but he rides the wave as best he can, even when it terrifies him. It’s a hell of a thing to realize that you can retaliate against the goons who nearly cost your best friend his foot, burn down the bar where the attack happened, and get away with it because law enforcement fears you. It’s even more of a hell of a thing to keep up with the kind of mean a feat like that will bring in. It wears Johnny out, but there’s no getting off the bike—not when the man you saw as the club’s future wants nothing to do with what it’s become.

The Bikeriders
Tom Hardy’s Johnny’s a hard and cool man, but he’s not the mythical beast of a man others see. The Bikeriders, Focus Features.

Butler’s turn as Benny is the weakest of the central trio, albeit not because of poor work on his part. Nichols and company deliberately make Benny a bit of a cipher. Kathy projects a version of Benny who’s more emotionally mature than he is in life, a husband she’s 100% happy with. Johnny projects a version of Benny who’s not just Brando cool; he’s willing and ready to step up and become the Vandals’ new leader. Both love him, care for him, and see some of the true him. Neither sees the whole of him, and both project things that are not there—so much so that, in the film’s best scene, Benny has to step up and make it clear to Johnny that he’s disgusted by who the Vandals have become—and that even if he wasn’t disgusted, he is not and will not become leadership material.

The trick is that Butler doesn’t get the time or the space that Comer and Hardy do to make Benny his. We continually get to see Benny as Kathy and Johnny see him, but not who he is on his own. The Bikeriders doesn’t allow him to be more than an image. It’s frustrating, disjointed, and unable to reconcile the space between image and reality—a problem The Bikeriders never fully solves. Comer and Hardy do very fine work, and when Nichols and company dial into them, the film is quite good. But, with the picture’s inability to successfully bridge its exploration of folks who chase the myth of the Outlaw Biker with its own fascination with that myth, it’s quite flawed. Keep that in mind, and it’s worth a watch.

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