4.5 out of 5 stars

Set in the mid-1960s to the 1970s, The Bikeriders sets a rough-n-ready tone from the start. Benny (Austin Butler), the colours of his motorcycle club, the Vandals, stitched into his jean jacket, stops for a drink at a seedy Chicago bar. He promptly learns he’s way out of his patch when two local toughs from a rival gang inform him that Vandal colours aren’t welcome in these parts. It’s either take them off, “or else.”  Loyal to his colours, stubborn, and macho to his core, Benny chooses “or else,” whereupon he’s subjected to a near-fatal beatdown.

Just when the seemingly fatal blow is about to fall on Benny, the film cuts a few years ahead to a comfy-looking kitchen where Benny’s wife, Kathy (Jodie Comer), is being interviewed by real-life photojournalist Danny Lyon (Mike Faist), who, after riding alongside the Vandals for years, is now preparing a book about them.

Kathy is our primary guide to the story of the club, their founder and leader, Johnny (Tom Hardy), and Benny, who’s caught between the two of them as her husband and the club member whom Johnny trusts the most. This love triangle becomes the main storyline of this ultra-gritty, authentic portrait of a uniquely American subculture.

Kathy, a blue-collar Chicagoan, has few choices in life, especially when it comes to the men available in the local scene. One night, she stops by a seedy neighbourhood bar to meet a friend, only to find herself in a hellish testosterone-fuelled den that also doubles as the Vandals’ headquarters. Kathy, along with her friend, is the only woman in this sweaty inferno of groping, leering ruffians. The atmosphere simmers with potential violence, making us fear for her safety.

Just as she’s about to escape, her large brown eyes land on Benny, positioned like a savage god at one end of a pool table, shrouded in romantic noir-like shadows. Everyone around, Vandals included, warns her that Benny’s a screw-up destined for a bad end. But soon after, the bad boy moves in, and within weeks, Kathy marries him, becoming a fully-fledged biker chick.

As portrayed in this film, the Vandals don’t see themselves as criminals, but as a club for outcasts for whom Harley-Davidson motorcycles are an all-consuming passion. Johnny, a working lorry driver and family man, starts the club after being inspired by that memorable moment in the first biker movie, The Wild One (1951), when Marlon Brando sneers, “What have ya got?” when asked what he’s rebelling against. To this bored man, Brando’s words are a call to adventure, their contrarian nihilism promising absolute freedom.

Johnny’s quest for freedom drags behind him a remarkably motley crew of like-minded layabouts, borderline psychopaths, and general screw-ups, united only by their passion for motorbikes and partying. Alongside Benny are Zippo (Michael Shannon), Brucie (Damon Herriman), and Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus)—the scroungiest bunch of gutter trash I’ve seen since the bounty hunters in The Wild Bunch (1969). Whatever you say about them, they’re a fearlessly colourful lot, loyal to their own code, even if you wouldn’t let them within 10 miles of your family home.

Despite the long hair, beards, and anti-establishment facade, these guys aren’t hippies. They’re a kind of tribal libertarians, almost oblivious to the world beyond their borders. Amongst the gang, Zippo bitterly mourns his rejection (on mental health grounds) by the military for service in Vietnam, while Cockroach (Emory Cohen) dreams of one day becoming a motorbike cop—an unlikely aspiration for someone with his background.

Narrated by Kathy, The Bikeriders follows the Vandals over the years as they roam the American Midwest on their Harleys, stopping only at rallies where they drink, brawl amongst themselves and with rival gangs, and sometimes race their bikes on dirt ovals.

By the time Kathy marries into the scene, the club is already fracturing under forces from both within and without. Among the internal forces are time, age, and, unsurprisingly, accidental death. Among the external forces is the Vietnam War, which is bringing home a new generation of bikers who violently reject the values of the old. Over time, the occasional spontaneous crimes the Vandals commit evolve into becoming habitual, organised, and much more violent as the new men take over—a common pattern in gangland history.

While Kathy stands apart as an appalled yet captivated observer (and occasional participant) in their various scrums, club leader Johnny wonders whether it’s about time for him to take off his colours for good. Age and hard living have, of course, taken their toll, but behind his lined and battered face, we sense a gnawing disappointment, as though he’d never found the magic promised by Brando’s insolent mystique. Bossing a motorcycle club has become a wearying, unromantic chore with no exit. He eventually offers Benny his throne, but that only puts Benny on the spot between his loyalty to the club and his profound love for Kathy, who rightfully wants to cut loose from this life-shortening merry-go-round.

While The Bikeriders fits the genre of the “biker movie”, it rides apart from the pack as a semi-documentary portrait of a subculture, its lifestyle, and the brutal code of ethics and rituals that bind its members. Fans of the old Roger Corman biker flicks of the 1960s and the FX series Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014) may expect something similar. Still, this film has no plot as such but unfolds in a series of acutely observed episodes that vividly capture the hard lives lived by hard men.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) based his film on photojournalist Danny Lyon’s 1967 photobook of the same title, one of the earliest accounts of motorcycle gangs, alongside Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. His screenplay and direction capture this world’s gritty, grimy detail meticulously. The smell of sweat, stale beer, and petrol hangs heavy throughout, along with a dark cloud of male violence. Yet, thanks to Kathy telling the story from her often-bewildered perspective, we also maintain an outsider’s viewpoint, ensuring the film is neither too clinical nor too sentimental.

Cinematographer Adam Stone paints with umber tones, usually employed to evoke gentle clouds of nostalgia. Here, however, the rich colour scheme accentuates the seediness even more, adding a further layer of pathos to this portrait of these nobodies going nowhere. “Everyone wants to belong to something,” Zipco says at one point, his weathered face bathed in the warm glow of a campfire. We’re not here to condemn or condone but to understand. For too many men, gangs like the Vandals are all they have, so that’s where they go. Meanwhile, composer David Wingo has provided a subtle score, while a series of jukebox hits from the era brighten the background.

The Bikeriders will remind you of Martin Scorsese’s classic gangster sagas, but it’s Sam Peckinpah’s spirit that infuses this film’s extraordinary attention to physical detail and the culture of raw male camaraderie. The atmosphere is so vivid that you can see every line on the men’s sun-baked faces as they ride and fight through clouds of sweat, whisky, and beer.

In this more conservative age, it would be easy to dismiss these rather limited men with righteous scoffs, but the film’s naturalism brings us close enough to them with compassion and humour. They are who they are, and there’s not much they, or we, can do about it. They’re like cowboys with no cattle to herd, no ranch to work on. They can only wander haplessly around in the hope life breaks their way, which only happens for a lucky few.

The Bikeriders does fall somewhat short in that we never truly understand the passionate interest the Vandals have in motorbikes and motorbiking. As authentically as it portrays their world, once the lads hop on their bikes and take off, the film struggles to keep up. The thrill of riding seems absent, as they glide along in formation like a flock of scruffy swans. Riding well within the speed limit, they look almost… law-abiding.

There’s no thrill in the riding sequences that compares to Ben Johnson on horseback riding at full gallop through a rocky ravine in The Wild Bunch, a sight that makes even a klutz like me want to take up horse riding. Johnson on his horse certainly beats watching Benny on his Harley, with the police in pursuit, run out of petrol on a quiet country road. The film shows the obvious danger but little of the thrill of motorcycling.

As for the actors, they all play their roles with full throttle and absolute dedication. While Benny’s character feels underwritten and opaque, Austin Butler (Dune Part Two) hits his mark with Brando-esque authority. Jodie Comer, so brilliant in Killing Eve (2018-2022) as a dithering psychopathic assassin, magically transforms into a young Chicagoan. Her Midwestern accent rings as true as her Russian one did. She brilliantly portrays Kathy’s wavering emotions: astonishment, horror, and disbelief about the world she’s entered, alongside her unwavering love for Benny and affection for Johnny. Michael Shannon (Amsterdam) delivers another excellent performance, portraying Zip with a mix of anguish and innocence. His large, deep eyes seem bewildered by a world that somehow fails to live up to his idealistic view of how things should be.

Best of all is Tom Hardy (Venom) as Johnny. In my experience, the actor has been too often smothered by comic-book villain masks and other paraphernalia. The Bikeriders lets us see him fully unleashed. He inhabits Johnny completely, moving with a lonely grace through his dark world. His face, crumpled with years of hard living, is etched with regret that he didn’t stay home with his family after all. Being a criminal was never his intention. Remarkably, his pugnacious face and ferret-like eyes bear a startling resemblance to the great character actor Warren Oates. If someone ever gets around to making an Oates biopic, he’d be the perfect choice, mark my words.

USA | 2024 | 116 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Jeff Nichols.
writer: Jeff Nichols (based on the photo-book by Danny Lyon).
starring: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Norman Reedus, Boyd Holbrook & Damon Herriman.