‘The Bikeriders’ Review: The Vibe Is Pitch Perfect, The Story Less So

This chronicle of a motorcycle gang is an entertaining ride, and—as befits a movie based on a photo book—the visuals are impressive. But the narrative lacks depth.

Jodie Comer and Austin Butler in The Bikeriders. Kyle Kaplan/Courtesy of Focus Features

Like the scuffed-up leather jackets worn by its characters, The Bikeriders is an aesthetically cool movie. The film, written and directed by Jeff Nichols based on Danny Lyon’s 1968 photo book documenting an Illinois motorcycle club, shifts between grimy dive bars, open-road motorcycle caravans and Austin Butler doing his best James Dean impression. Its ensemble cast, too, is hip: Tom Hardy, Jodie Comer, Michael Shannon, Norman Reedus, Boyd Holbrook and Mike Faist. But amid the vintage denim and slicked-back hair, there’s often a lack of depth beneath the movie’s nonchalant veneer. 

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THE BIKERIDERS ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Norman Reedus, Boyd Holbrook
Running time: 116 mins.


Hardy plays Johnny, the leader of a 1960s fictional biker gang called the Vandals (Lyon depicted the real-life Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club). What starts as a local group for motorcycle aficionados shifts into more violent territory over the 10 years showcased in The Bikeriders, leading to rival gangs, bloody fights and, eventually, murder. It’s told largely by Kathy (Comer doing a top-notch Midwestern accent), the wife of Vandal member Benny (Butler), as she recounts the history of the club to Danny (Faist). The non-linear storytelling largely works, although sometimes the timeline is hazy, particularly since the Vandals never seem to age or change. 

Nichols, who last released Midnight Special and Loving in 2016, is clearly enraptured with the material and his enthusiasm translates to the viewer. Hardy was born to play Johnny, the gravely-voiced, perpetually-unfazed Vandals leader willing to fight to defend his title. His pals, including Shannon’s Zipco and Reedus’ Funny Sonny, respect him, as does Benny, a swaggering newcomer eager to prove himself. The scenes of their Vandals family picnics and bikes revving down the flat Midwestern highway are compelling, revealing the culture of biker gangs of the time. Nichols recreates moments from Lyon’s book in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky. It allows an insider’s view of a time and place that is rooted in history and grounded in authenticity. It’s the story that becomes loose at points, which makes sense as Nichols is inserting a narrative into the spaces between the existing photographs. 

Tom Hardy and Austin Butler in The Bikeriders. Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features

It’s also hard to get a fix on Butler, an actor who is ever in the zeitgeist these days. His performance as Elvis, for which he donned an accent he put on for months after shooting Baz Lurhmann’s biopic, was overzealous at best and obnoxious at worst. His method fervor worked better in Dune: Part 2, largely because he had less screen time. Here, though, Butler struts and makes moody faces and glowers on the back of a bike. Everything he does seems calculated to look as cool as possible, but there’s not much to Benny under the surface. It’s Hardy who brings a real sense of humanity and heart to the bike gang, who are ultimately just a group of family guys looking for connection. As they become mired in violent threats to their existence—and to Johnny’s leadership—it’s easy to empathize. It’s not what anyone signed up for, but it’s the best way for Nichols to infuse the story with actual drama. 

Still, The Bikeriders is an entertaining ride. It’s gritty, nostalgic and occasionally romanticized, especially if you have an affinity for the era in which it’s set, which Nichols clearly does. The actors are charismatic, many of them effortlessly so (besides Butler, who is constantly trying too hard). It’s another strong turn from Comer, one of the best actors working in Hollywood right now, and there are compelling moments of insight into performative masculinity. The attitude and the vibe are pitch perfect, even if the story itself sometimes feels like less of a story and more a series of images. 

 

‘The Bikeriders’ Review: The Vibe Is Pitch Perfect, The Story Less So