The Bikeriders Review

The Bikeriders
The Bikeriders
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Jeff Nichols is a director who has been working on the idea of a movie about America’s biker culture for so many years now, and he once shared this with his close friend, actor Michael Shannon, in a Memphis bar. “Michael was next to me and said ‘You’ve been talking about that idea over and over again, but you’ll never make it happen. You’re never gonna make that shit,’” Nichols told /Film. “‘I’m like, ‘No, I am. It’s a great idea.’” So we are talking about The Bikeriders movie.

Nichols knew what he was saying; from The Wild One through Easy Rider to Rumble Fish as well as Sons of Anarchy (FX’s hit series), the United States has always had an enduring love affair with the worst form of transit on land there ever was or ever will be. Now, thanks to Shannon’s gentle persuasion, Nichols has made his dream come true by creating a motorcycle movie based on Danny Lyon’s photography book called The Bikeriders (1967), this one portrayed the life within the Midwest motorbike gang of the Chicago Outlaws.

The bond between Nichols and Shannon is thus appropriate if one looks at where The Bikeriders originated from because their lives revolve around an object that owes its existence to William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson’s team spirit. This piece is therefore nostalgic about friendship amidst what could have been the worst-case scenario in toxic masculinity: a blue-collar motorcycle club in a 1960s setting. Led by their no-nonsense founder Johnny (Tom Hardy doing his less serious version of Capone accent), Illinois-based Vandals are misfits who connect through loud music, loud motorcycles, and women who scream their heads off while having fun.

They are diverse characters whose introduction takes place in quick succession – Cockroach (Emory Cohen), named for eating an insect; soulful West Coast transplant Cal (Boyd Holbrook); zany BFFs Corky (Karl Glusman) and Wahoo (Beau Knapp); and Zipco (Shannon), who is a Dennis Hopper. However, Johnny has a soft spot for brooding Benny (Austin Butler in his first post-Elvis role) who we’re told doesn’t really care about anything or anyone else besides riding.

Nichols puts the voice of no-nonsense Kathy (Jodie Comer) at the center of machismo, reminding us about her years on the outer periphery of the gang because she fell for Benny. She’s the type that will not allow men to dominate her; she also openly responds to young reporter/photographer Danny (Mike Faist). It feels like something Scorsese would have done in The Wolf of Wall Street mixed with Goodfellas though Nichols’ approach seems kinder even when dealing with violent disenfranchised men, more interested in throwing punches than asking questions.

Well, the first time we see Benny he’s getting into trouble – the first of many such incidents. He is sitting in a quiet bar drinking when he is accosted by two patrons who tell him to take off his motorcycle jacket. This turns very violent for a while and then Kathy comes up saying that she has not got much of peace because Benny has some bad habits and annoying friends but she cannot stop coming back for more. “It isn’t love,” she says. “It’s idiocy.” But there lies her disappointment, anger and sometimes fear yet the feeling of warmth towards her on-off lover remains intact with her where they can act tenderly and passionately. There is no doubt that Butler knows how to write about rebels without causes as seen in Benny who even keeps one at an arm’s length from himself.

However, this softness between Kathy and Benny contrasts with hard features of the gang whenever they are together. Another member is said to have messed with another gang’s bikes, leading to an all-out brawl during a picnic; which ultimately ends amusingly after everyone agrees on a draw by sitting down for drink together. Some of this tension is diffused through humour because Nichols plays it up as comedy which arises when several alpha males are competing against one another at different levels of tempering each other with violence — but this does not mean he is unwilling to portray various shocking cases of brutality that become all-the-more jarring due to our fondness for these rough-edged but well-meaning miscreants.

In particular, the cast members’ performances are important in making The Bikeriders charming, especially Comer who plays a fast-talking anti-romantic lead character giving some relief from Hardy as an overworked boss who finds himself unable to cope with changes in society. Toby Wallace (also recently seen in Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel) makes an excellent choice for the role of a chillingly dogged aspirant, while Norman Reedus’ blinkered West Coast biker Funny Sonny is an absolute joy in a well-timed cameo. If anything could be said about the cast, it would be that Michael Shannon was not on screen long enough.

While the location of the movie is mostly Chicago, its many years of setting make it feel like a road movie. In some places, though, jumping around in time can confuse and distract; even when using captions it is sometimes hard to know what Kathy or Danny are reflecting upon at different moments throughout the film. This issue is further complicated by another major one – not much really happens in The Bikeriders besides having a plot and instead we are shown more about people — simply put, it’s a slice-of-life look at interactions among this group of friends who mainly focus on Johnny and Benny with former trying to make out latter into his protégé.

However, this steady pace does not fit with the commonly held idea of motorcycles as high-octane vehicles; it is however consistent with Nichols’ past work, which has always centered on human stories even in the fantastical realms of movies like Take Shelter and Midnight Special. Though not a film for adrenaline junkies, The Bikeriders does show how American men have found themselves in motorcycle culture for generations. However, its third act veers a little into cliché territory as well when it lightly touches upon the end of the golden era of 60s and how bikers started going rogue.

This is a nostalgic story told by an interesting narrator, who uses songs by the Shangri-Las to evoke mood and more blue denim than you would find in any Levi’s shop. Yet, mightn’t this be one reason why people love The Bikeriders? It could be very attractive since things are definitely bad as pointed out in 2023. A world where running away from problems is just as easy as riding down I-75 while squeezing your knees onto 1750 cubic centimeters of raw power.

In Summary

An affectionate exploration of an often romanticized part of society that instead purrs along at a leisurely pace rather than zooms past, The Bikeriders features an excellent ensemble cast that makes Jeff Nichols’ latest film about both the highs and lows experienced by a legendary motorcycle gang seem fluid throughout.

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