Playing exactly how one expects a film inspired by a book of photography might, Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders is a series of striking images of a nascent subculture in search of a purpose. Set in the suburbs of Chicago during ’60s and early ’70s, the film charts the rise and fall of a motorcycle club — later rechristened a gang — with an almost wistfulness for a bygone era when the outlaw life (allegedly) had if not innocence, then certainly a charm to it. Beefs were quashed over fisticuffs and beers, women were idealized so far as they remembered their place as silent accessories and homemakers, and nothing ever felt so free as the wind whipping through your hair while riding the open road on a custom-built hog. It’s a fundamentally reactionary telling of history, eliding issues of race, sexuality, class, and labor, as well as gender politics (despite installing Jodie Comer’s biker squeeze, Kathy, as ostensibly the film’s narrator and de facto protagonist); true to form, The Bikeriders lays the blame for the deterioration of the lifestyle it depicts at the feet of the counterculture and the next generation that refused to respect the old ways. But the film has been conceived from the outside in, treating its plot and characters as nothing more than a skeleton on which to hang period details and faithfully recreated moments in time. It amounts to little more than pretty pictures and surface–level pleasures.
Nichols drops us into this world in media res, introducing us to charismatic hothead Benny (Austin Butler, retaining the Elvis pompadour but mercifully ditching the voice) having a barstool cracked over his skull for refusing to remove his colors — AKA his biker jacket — in an unaffiliated tavern. Benny is a true devotee to the cause and that “cause” is the Vandals, a ramshackle gang with around a dozen members that’s taken on an outsized role in shaping the identity of the character. His face artfully smeared with grease as though it were makeup and seemingly having wandered out of a sexless version of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Benny doesn’t say much but he sure smolders impressively and seems to constantly be chewing over a private joke — it remains unclear whether Butler is a talented actor but he undeniably understands how to silently hold the camera’s gaze, which is almost as important. When he says you’re going to have to kill him to get the jacket off of him, we have little reason to doubt. Benny ends up in the hospital after taking a shovel across the back of the head and nearly losing a foot, but not before slashing one of his assailant’s faces with a switchblade; and, most importantly to the character, he never relinquishes his colors. Later, after club president Johnny (Tom Hardy, soft-spoken yet squirrely here) learns of the attack, the Vandals converge on the bar, calmly ask the barkeep for the names and addresses of the two men who assaulted their brother — which they promptly receive — and then set the building ablaze simply for being the venue to a provocation. As the Vandals stand outside watching the bar burn, Johnny notes that neither the fire department nor the police on scene are interceding or attempting to detain them. “They fear us,” Johnny murmurs to a fellow Vandal who is inquiring whether they should split, but the assertion is mostly for the audience’s benefit.
The sequence, which is actually stretched out over a chunk of the film but has been compressed here for clarity, is indicative of both The Bikeriders‘ appeal as well as the group’s shortcomings. With its sudden bursts of violence, wall-to-wall classic rock needle drops, conversational narration, and even use of freeze frames as dramatic punctuation, it all plays like an RC Cola version of Scorsese’s classic Coca-Cola (ironically, this film arrives at a time when Scorsese has concertedly rethought his approach to aestheticizing screen violence in films like The Irishman and Killers of the Flower Moon). There’s something innately exciting to the way rock and roll, loud engines, and broken glass stimulate our sense, but in The Bikeriders it comes with no real meaning behind it or interrogation of the culture that nurtured these signifiers. Benny is a handsome cipher who strikes many an iconic pose playing pool, smoking cigarettes leaning against his bike, or running full speed into a scrum, fists cocked. But his attachment to the Vandals says as much about the absence of his personality as it does the gravitational pull of the club, which, as shown here, dedicates much of its time to barbecues and racing bikes on dirt patches. There are no significant interactions between the club and the police, and why would there be? The Vandals don’t break the law all that often, mostly limiting their mischief to speeding through town and fighting in the park. Nobody’s running meth across state lines, serving as over-cranked paid muscle for rock bands, or engaged in racially motivated violence, and perhaps that’s entirely the film’s point; spurning the macho soap operas of shows like Sons of Anarchy and its assorted spinoffs for something more “realistic.” But the absence of dramatic incident isn’t offset by any real insight into motorcycle culture or the pack mentality of mid-century American men. To a certain extent, The Bikeriders feels like it’s working backwards from a specific tableau it’s looking to restage, and how the characters arrived there or how any two images might connect to one another is very “details TBD.”
The cast certainly helps with filling in the gaps. Nichols, who has not directed a film since 2016’s Loving, has always brought the best out in his actors, and his latest again pulls from his repertory of regulars, including Michael Shannon and Paul Sparks in supporting roles, with the ensemble rounded out by reliable character actors like Boyd Holbrook, Norman Reedus, and Damon Herriman, all giving relaxed, lived-in performances. But the draw here are the above-the-title names, with Nichols really allowing his stars the space to make the characters their own, to mixed results. Hardy remains one our finest “under-overactors,” stripping down his performance as Johnny to a bare minimum of physical movements and confining his speaking voice to a limited register that never rises above a measured tone even when he’s seething; the actor largely delivers his lines in a sing-song gurgle which is somehow as ultimately unnerving as it is initially disarming. It’s a highly technical performance made up of small but easily perceptible gestures and tics; we’re always conscious of how present the character is and how much he’s silently processing information — it’s actually hard to take your eyes off of him. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum there’s Comer, who has made the choice to adopt a broad “Chi-caw-go” accent that while perhaps regionally and/or period accurate, seems to belong to a different, much broader film, sounding something like Heath Ledger’s Joker by way of Betty Boop. Spending the majority of her scenes opposite Mike Faist — playing a version of the author Danny Lyon, whose photographs and interviews with bikers and their families comprised the book that the film is based on — Comer, under a beehive and with an impish gleam in her eyes, recounts how a nice girl like Kathy hooked up with this crowd. As Benny’s wife, she fights in vain to civilize him, tolerating his moodiness and layabout buddies who park their bikes on the grass outside her house all while contextualizing developments that the Vandals themselves would be reluctant to directly comment upon. Yet the stunty performance is also part of the film’s larger design of presenting being a biker wife as something quaint or commonplace, with the lifestyle only losing its appeal with the introduction of outside agitators, personified by dope smoking new members back from Vietnam and street kids who have actually internalized the “no fucks to give” attitude as opposed to merely adopting it after watching The Wild One on television. But even then, her understanding and observations of the world are fundamentally at a remove. In telling the story from a female perspective, it may reflect the spirit of the original project, but it also functionally reinforces how superficial this all is, playing like a tourist’s account of a world they frequently visit but never actually inhabit. What endures here are the fashions and production design, as well as the way Nichols arranges his actors as living avatars from a “simpler” time. It’s wax museum cinema: accurate to the eye, but also uncanny and bloodless. With The Bikeriders, Nichols has transformed danger and rebellion into something palatable to a wide audience, easily bottled and sold on shelves.