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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'The Bikeriders': A Meditative, Beautifully Acted Biker Gang Drama

Early on in The Bikeriders, the latest film from writer/director Jeff Nichols, Jodie Comer’s character, Kathy, recounts how she got connected with the Vandals MC, a Chicago biker gang. In this sequence, we are introduced to the rugged men who belong to the club, and see Kathy go from being repulsed by them to being fascinated by them. She has a more all-American vibe, especially compared to the Vandals, but is drawn into their world, largely due to her growing interest in one of their members, Benny, played by Austin Butler. Despite her disdain for some of their more reckless activities, she can’t help but be enchanted by their way of life. This strange allure is present throughout most of the film, as Nichols presents the Vandals in a way that makes it easy to see why the characters would want to be involved with the club, yet he doesn’t shy away from their gritty, often violent, exploits. While Kathy wants as little to do with them as possible, the rest of the characters can’t imagine their lives without the Vandals. Although their views may differ, everyone in this film seems to be chasing something they can never fully grasp. For Kathy, it is trying to establish a more normal, stable life. For the Vandals, it is trying to be something bigger than who they really are. This idea of chasing the unattainable fuels The Bikeriders, and underlines the bittersweet nature of the film. The film deconstructs masculinity and desire to reflect the way it is portrayed in media, and how we can often learn the wrong lessons from it. It is a meditative piece that is a bit quieter than some might expect from a biker movie, but it ends up going to some interesting places and still has plenty of drive under the surface. 

Inspired by Danny Lyon’s 1967 book of photography, The Bikeriders tells the story of the Vandals MC, an outlaw motorcycle club that rises in popularity during the 1960s. The film uses a framing device where Kathy (Jodie Comer) is being interviewed by Lyon (Mike Faist) about her connection to the gang. Through this, we find out about her chance meeting with one of its members, Benny (Austin Butler), and hear stories about the Vandals over the years. The leader of the gang, Johnny (Tom Hardy) formed the group with the hope of uniting a band of outsiders, acting as a bit of a found family for those looking for something more in life. But as the years go by, the original vision of the group changes, and the Vandals become more criminal in nature. The film details the evolution of the gang throughout the 60s, and sees the members trying to chase down a way of life that is quickly fleeting. 

One of the things that struck me about the film is how it tries to imitate the look and feel of biker culture in the 1960s. There is a sense of period accurate detail in terms of the set and certain costume pieces, but the rest of the film has a more modern edge to it. At first, I was a little thrown off by this, but the more I sit with it, I feel like it ultimately works for what the film is trying to say. There is some authenticity to how it recreates the way of life that 60s bikers gangs lived, but it almost feels like some of the actors are putting up some sort of facade. Considering that the club in the film is established in part because Tom Hardy’s character wants to be like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, it makes sense that some of the gang members might not fully capture the biker persona. 

A great example of this is Emory Cohen’s character, Cockroach. The character is a more jubilant presence in the film, always willing to do wild things such as eating bugs for the other Vandals’ amusement. He has a fairly normal life outside of the gang, as he has a wife and kids and generally feels like a regular guy. While some of the other Vandals are in the group to escape something or to prove their manliness, Cockroach just seems to be in the group because he enjoys riding motorcycles and hanging out with his friends. He doesn’t fully grasp the purpose of the group, and he sticks out among them. The Vandals still accept him, but it is a prime example of how some of the characters feel more like someone wearing a costume as opposed to honest-to-God bikers.

This idea of misunderstanding the vision of the Vandals is also illustrated in a plotline centered on Toby Wallace’s character, known only as The Kid. We are first introduced to him in a scene where the Vandals ride past him and his friends. The Kid is very taken by their sheer presence, and it awakens a desire to be just like them. However, The Kid misinterprets what the gang is all about, and in his quest to join them, becomes more violent and erratic. He sees them as more of a group of criminals, as opposed to a brotherhood of men who bond over rebellion and their love of motorcycles. This shows how men often misread media’s depiction of masculinity, twisting it to become something more toxic and sinister. Think of films like American Psycho or Fight Club which critique toxic masculinity, but have been misinterpreted as supporting it by various people. The intention may seem clear to those who send the message, but those who receive it might not fully understand it. 

Whether the characters fully fit the biker mold or not, there is this sense that they are all holding onto their way of life for as long as they can. This is especially prominent in Austin Butler’s character, Benny. He cannot imagine a life without the Vandals, likely because he is young and doesn’t have much of a frame of reference for it. He is all-in when it comes to the gang, and feels like James Dean anytime he appears on screen. He may not be the most intimidating member of the Vandals, but he is perhaps the coolest and most dedicated among them. He keeps his cards close to his chest, but we do see his emotions peek out a little when his way of life is threatened. He would do anything for the Vandals, and he is resistant to any kind of change that comes his way. While most of the other characters are chasing something beyond them, Benny is chasing the status quo. He wants to maintain a life that cannot last forever, which adds a tragic layer to his character. The Vandals are all searching for their ideal lives, which is interesting enough as is, but it is their own individual journeys and the way they respond to the changing times and that gives the film some added depth.

I have always appreciated Jeff Nichols as a filmmaker, as he has a naturalistic style that he can adapt to any genre he is working in. Over the years, he has made a coming-of-age film, a psychological thriller, a sci-fi movie, and a biopic, yet his voice can still be heard through all of them. The Bikeriders is more of a harsh crime drama, almost feeling Scorsese-esque at times. But Nichols’s methodical hand keeps the film from feeling like pastiche, and gives it its own identity. He lets the film unspool slowly but surely, allowing the audience to become immersed in the world of the Vandals. Having most of the story come from Kathy, who isn’t directly in the gang but still connected to it is an inspired choice, as she is a bit of an audience surrogate. Kathy’s opinions towards them are made abundantly clear, but Nichols presents the raucous activities of the gang with a more objective point of view, leaving it to the audience to form their own opinions on them. We are able to see things from Kathy’s perspective, but when we focus on the Vandals, it doesn’t completely glorify or condemn any of the things they do. Of course, the film does need to make the gang look somewhat appealing, as we need to understand why someone would want to get tangled up with them, but it doesn’t lay this on too thick. Nichols’s style puts the audience into the world of the Vandals in a more grounded, thoughtful way than most would be expecting, and gets to the reality of what the gang experiences throughout the film. 

The film also has a loose structure, as it unfolds over the course of a decade and doesn’t have a conventional plot. It makes the film feel more like a hangout movie, which I honestly enjoyed. It gives us time to get to know the characters in the film a little, and to become more familiar with their lives. While there are plenty of plot threads, it feels a little more episodic, as we follow different stories as the Vandals evolve over time. There is a somewhat scattered quality to the storytelling that lessens some of the dimensionality of the characters, but it makes for a compelling collage of the Vandals as a whole. It at leasts makes the film feel more realistic, which helps its larger themes shine through.

The cast is stunning across the board, as this film assembles one of the best ensembles I’ve seen so far this year. Frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon shines in a minor role as Zipco, a member of the Vandals. He has one scene in particular where he’s talking about his lot in life that really stood out to me, and plays into the core ideas of the film beautifully. Toby Wallace is genuinely quite frightening when he shows up, as he has a volatile quality that gives his character a dangerous aura. Emory Cohen is charming as the affable Cockroach, and adds an interesting energy to the group. Norman Reedus looks and feels like a grubby 60s biker as Funny Sonny, and really immerses himself in the role. 

But it is the three de facto leads that really stand out in this film, each of whom feels so locked into what the film is going for. Tom Hardy once again does a strange accent, but I think it works for the character. This is mainly because he embodies the role so well, depicting Johnny’s drive to establish and manage the club, while also showing his wild side. There is an underlying sadness to the character that Hardy plays perfectly, and it helps show the humanity within him. He is a bit of a wild card, but his heart always seems to be in the right place, even if his actions don’t always match it. Austin Butler continues to show that he just might be our next big movie star with this film. He has a smoldering intensity that simmers beneath his cool exterior, and gives such a controlled performance. He has these walls up that make him feel otherworldly, but when he lets them down a little, we see some added nuance that makes the character all the more fascinating. Butler is such a compelling actor, and his work here further shows that he’s got the goods. Jodie Comer is the emotional crux of the entire film, as her character’s love for Benny conflicts with her attitude towards the Vandals. You really feel for her, as she clearly wants a better life for her and Benny, but can’t have it due to his devotion to the gang. She has a moment in the third act that is devastating, as she suffers a traumatic event and lashes out at Benny after the fact. Comer handles it wonderfully, and absolutely blew me away. She does have a questionable accent that caught me off-guard at first, but didn’t take too much away from the performance itself for me. It might be too much for some viewers, but Comer’s performance is so strong that it makes up for it in my opinion.

The Bikeriders is a much more contemplative affair than some might be expecting, but that’s part of what makes it special. It shows how trying to hold onto a specific time and place forever can be futile, and examines masculinity and how it can be misconstrued by people. Some might find it a bit too loose for their liking, but I really like the vibes it gives off and I really connected with the ideas it wrestles with. It is yet another strong effort from Jeff Nichols, and features some excellent performances to boot. I have to imagine that most people’s mileage will vary when it comes to this film, but it has so many interesting layers that I truly appreciate. It is the type of film that I find more and more to like about it the more I sit with it, and while some might not gel with it, I can’t help but think of it as a ride I won’t soon forget.

Rating: 4.5/5

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