The Bikeriders – Review

The Bikeriders Photographer Danny Lyon toured the American Midwest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, spending time with a fledgling motorcycle group named the Vandals. He then thought he could turn his photos and experiences into a book, and so began interviewing members of the club and those around them in order to paint a better picture. It is this that writer / director Jeff Nichols uses as a jumping off point in his latest film, The Bikeriders.

We open with Kathy (Jodie Comer) speaking into Lyon’s (Mike Faist) mic in a launderette. She’s all flat vowels and Betty Boop squeaks as she recalls there only being five weeks between first laying eyes on Benny (Austin Butler) and their getting married. Benny is part of the Vandals, which is run by Johnny (Tom Hardy) who wanted to start the group having watched Marlon Brandon in The Wild One on TV. Sure, there are a few bar fights and cat calls, but it doesn’t seem too sinister, as far as she is concerned. It is only when the group starts to get bigger and more people heard about it that it gained a notoriety and started to attract the wrong crowd.

And it’s that growth of the group that takes up the bulk of The Bikeriders. What genuinely seemed to start off as a place to drink some beers, do a few tricks and help each other out with repairs evolves into something rippling with toxic machismo, escalating violence and petty jealousies. However, this isn’t a film full of fights and stunts. Instead, it’s a very dialogue driven exploration of the group and, primarily, Kathy, Benny and Johnny. It’s a film that wants you to smell the grease and bloodied knuckles, the cheap whisky and the leathery bar stools. Nicholls wants to draw you into the small town mindset contrasted with the yearning for the open road; the glamour of being a biker’s girl juxtaposed with the threat of being the lone female at a picnic or house party.

Austin Butler has shrugged off his white gemstoned catsuit and swapped it for an array of dirty vests and leather jackets. He’s one of the more taciturn of the group but has a reputation for getting in scraps. This is a moody, brooding performance that has all the echoes of the clip of Brando that we see Johnny watching. Tom Hardy is excellent as the ageing group leader who sees what his beloved club is about to become. He is loyal and protective but, equally, single-minded and no-nonsense. Just one sideways glance or pursing of his lips and he is able to keep the troops in line. Jodie Comer narrates the film for us through interviews and flashbacks, giving a solid dramatic performance as Kathy. You can tell how much she loves Benny but how much she loathes what biker culture has become by the end of the film. She is flirty and Bambi-eyed when she needs to be but, really, this is another powerhouse performance from the much-lauded actor.

The supporting cast is made up of the likes of Michael Shannon, Damon Herriman, Boyd Holbrook and Norman Reedus, all of whom do a solid job of distinguishing their characters and fleshing them out into much more than motorcycle meat heads. So many of their stories – and why they are drawn to the group in the first place – are tinged with sadness. There are clear socio-economic implications in the film and, as the years roll on, international wars doing damage to the minds of young men. As the film progresses, it stops feeling vaguely sexy The Bikeriders and starts to feel laced with an undercurrent of barely concealed rage. You start to notice the fraying on the biker jackets, the dirt under the fingernails, the mound of cigarette stubs and the emotional disturbances. There’s a particularly shocking scene where Kathy is almost dragged off to be assaulted by a group of random bikers. It’s full of a panic and fear and anger that truly takes your breath away. Even Johnny is drawn into a fiery act of revenge that seems at odds with who he was at the start of the film.

With fantastic performances from the leading trio, The Bikeriders is a film for those who love well rounded characters and dialogue driven drama. What might initially seem like a nostalgic approach to a harmless motorcycle club soon gives way to larger themes that reveal a much more distressed America, in particular the small-town Midwest. There is no glamour to be found in the violence depicted or the dangerous interpretations of what it means to be masculine or loyal. A thoroughly engaging watch from start to finish.

The Bikeriders is now screening in UK cinemas.

Mary Munoz
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