The Bikeriders (2024)

Like cigarette smoke in a pool hall, the story of The Bikeriders wafts to and fro. Beginning in Chicago, 1965, we’re introduced to Kathy (Jodie Comer) a young woman being interviewed by photographer / author Danny (Mike Faist) as she tells her story of how she met the magnetic and alluring Benny (Austin Butler) and how the motorcycle club The Vandals (a stand-in for the real life Outlaws club) began and evolved, or devolved as she tell her story over the course of a decade. During that time we’re introduced to a cohort of rag tag f-ups, scoundrels, burn outs and drifters who are captivated by the lifestyle and the promise of being a part of something, a diesel dusted family of hairy weirdos who haven’t seen the inside of a shower in a long while. 

Sons of Anarchy this is not. While it may look like it on the surface, what with flashes of brass knuckles, beatings and the glint of blades, The Bikeriders is more a tale of what came before; before the crime, murder and viciousness that characterises what we’ve come to understand modern day outlaw motorcycle gangs to be. Instead, it’s a glimpse into a slice of Americana, how a group of misfits came together, and inhabited their own version of the American dream. Early on, it feels harmless and almost juvenile, boys dressed as men, finding solace in the camaraderie of one another through a love of power drinking and riding mechanical behemoths. It’s an idea that we find out early on germinates in the mind of Johnny after watching Brando quip “What do ya got?” in The Wild Ones, which makes the whole pursuit feel even more juvenile. But as the club grows, beyond the grasp of Johnny, and the new members who join have more ruinous ideas of “fun”, a dark pall settles over the club, as the whole rumbling franchise lurches towards criminality. 

Austin Butler, who has quickly become the talented pretty boy du jour, almost eclipsing fellow Dune Part 2 alum, Mr Chalamet, finds himself in a role where it feels very little is asked of him.It’s difficult to say whether this is the best Butler had in the tank, but Jeff Nichols utilises the more raw materials that the man has on offer. Say what you will about whatever unfortunate vocal damage Butler sustained during Elvis but here, the rumbling bass of his voice in company with that deep, deep soul removing stare of his works to give the young actor a screen presence not seen in a long while. And that’s really all he needs to inhabit the role of Benny, someone who cares about nothin’ and no one bar the freedom only the open road can bring. It contrasts well with the shark-eyed intensity of Tom Hardy, who plays Johnny as a monosyallabic beer-swilling tough guy, before frightening himself with his own creation, realising the dark path its taking. It’s a welcome vulnerable turn, and fondly reminded me of his other understated role in 2014’s The Drop.

Butler and Hardy may be the two-fer star power that draws the moths to the flame of the film, but it’s Jodie Cormer who’s carrying the entire bag. Known for her chameleon-like work as Villanelle in Killing Eve and given a career making performance in The Last Duel, Comer is long overdue her flowers and her role as Kathy might just be the ticket. It’s not a film where any one actor needs to carry it all on their own – everyone is bringing their own brand of A game to the field. But Comer is doing so much nuanced heavy lifting it’s difficult not to be captivated by her performance. Neither damsel nor accessory, Kathy is someone who is both enthralled by the charms of Benny but isn’t completely naive to the nature of the club. She spots danger early in Johnny’s machinations, and does her best to sound the alarm before things turn ugly. It’s one thing for a bunch of gasoline stained ne’er do-wells to have a physical dust up at a picnic, it’s another once people start bringing guns to a knife fight. 

Despite the brief spells of violence The Bikeriders is a mellow trip through 60’s Americana. As both writer and director, Nichols has gone to great lengths to preserve the tone and flavour of Danny Lyon’s book of the same name. It may not be the rough and tumble explosion of carnage that some audiences would relish from a biker bust-up. It’s a sweet, at times ugly story of a group of people trying to find sense and community on the open roads of the American midwest. 

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