Biker movies are almost a subgenre of films unto themselves, beginning with Marlon Brando’s The Wild One in the early ’50s and then through all those AIP exploitation titles of the ’60s including The Wild Angels, Hells Angels on Wheels and many more, notably Tom Laughlin’s predecessor to Billy Jack called Born Losers, all culminating with Easy Rider with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, which became the Citizen Kane of biker cinema.
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It has been awhile since we have seen a major big-screen return to the world of biker culture, but with Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders, which had its world premiere Thursday at the Telluride Film Festival, this long-lost era is back. But its filmmaker has distinctly different ideas and motives in reviving it. Basically, Nichols tells a period story set in the ’60s and ’70s world of the earlier efforts but applies contemporary themes of identity and loyalty and the need to belong in a world increasingly isolating us as individuals. On top of that, The Bikeriders is more in line with movies that Martin Scorsese has made such as GoodFellas and Mean Streets, films that pulsate with vivid characters, music and graphic violence. You might also say it is also right in line with a classic western, the outlaws riding bikes instead of horses to the inevitable showdowns.
Nichols got his inspiration for the story from a book of photographs by Danny Lyon. First published in 1967, it chronicled the real-life Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club over a four-year period. Nichols has crafted a fictionalized version called the Vandals, but many of the characters are based on photos in those pages of Lyon’s book, which has been reissued a few times over the decades.
Anchoring the film is its storyteller, narrator Kathy (Jodie Comer), who describes her relationship with Benny (Austin Butler), a hot-wired enigma estranged from his family who’s often the first to fight and unafraid to choose sides. They get married within five weeks of meeting, but he is elusive and moody, and she finds herself constantly struggling for attention from him because of his father/son-style relationship with his mentor, Johnny (Tom Hardy), the aging biker who leads the Vandals, where Benny has found a new home, as it were. He has a penchant for fighting to the finish, just like Johnny, who sees a potential heir in Benny, who wants no part of becoming the leader of the pack.
Kathy strings together anecdotes of the club’s rise and fall as she tells her story to Danny (Mike Faist), who is recording conversations for a potential book. This is what Lyon actually did, and Nichols uses the device to span several years in the life of the Vandals from the mid-’60s to the ’70s to a coda telling what happened eventually to all of the riders. There are a number of other colorful characters including the quirky Zipco (Nichols regular Michael Shannon); Cal (Boyd Holbrook), who is the chief mechanic and more interested in bikes than people; Brucie (Damon Herriman); Wahoo (Beau Knapp); the freewheelin’ Cockroach (Emory Cohen); Funny Sonny (The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus); and Corky (Karl Glusman). Each of them has a distinct personality that blend well together to make this fictional gang memorable, but it is Butler and Hardy who get the lion’s share of our attention, and both actors are sensational here.
Coming off his Oscar-nominated Elvis, Butler fits comfortably into a James Dean-style rebel whose cause seems to be surviving one violent encounter after another. Hardy is the grizzled veteran, the older guy who was inspired to start the Vandals after seeing Brando do it in Wild One but who clearly senses his own era might soon a thing of the past as a new generation with different sensibilities knocks at this door. Chief among that generation is The Kid (British actor Toby Wallace), a cocky teen with his own gang that is looking to join the Vandals, but Johnny rightly senses trouble. One of the film’s best scenes has Johnny confronting The Kid, who basically is trying to prove he and his buddies have the right stuff to sign on.
Although there are many vivid and graphically bloody scenes along the way, ultimately this is a portrait of changing times, our collective need for connection and the complications therein. It is the code of the Old West as it meets the new — masculinity unraveled, some who make it out and some who don’t. Nichols has dealt with the complexities of what makes men tick in varied and brilliant films including Mud and Loving, among others, and here presents a, yes, violent, but oddly poignant picture that fits right in with what motivates him as a sharp chronicler of who we were and what we become.
Comer is sensational with a key female voice in a pic otherwise dominated by the guys. Props to veteran casting director Francine Maisler, who helped Nichols bring those faces he saw in Lyon’s book to such stunning cinematic life. This ensemble cast is superb all around. There are also nice brief tip of the hats to The Wild One and Easy Rider themselves.
Producers of the 20th Century Films and New Regency production are Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, and Arnon Milchan.
Title: The Bikeriders
Distributor: 20th Century Films
Festival: Telluride Film Festival
Release Date: December 1, 2023
Director-screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman, Beau Knapp, Emory Cohen, Toby Wallace, Norman Reedus, Karl Glusman
Running time: 1 hr 56 min
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