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The Bikeriders ★★★★



Directed: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist

Released: 1st December 2023 (UK cinemas)

Based on a 1976 photobook of the same name, Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders follows the Vandals, an Ilinois-based biker gang whose members include leader Johnny (Hardy) and the young and wild Benny (Austin Butler). The film documents the history of the Vandals and their lives as both a biker gang and an increasingly influential presence in the community.

At first glance, The Bikeriders feels like a love child of Almost Famous and the TV series Sons of Anarchy. The gang takes pride in their bikes and colours and share a camaraderie that akins to brotherhood. Their exploits are recorded and captured by photojournalist Danny Lyon (West Side Story‘s Mike Faist), whose easygoing nature allows the members to reveal bizarre stories about their past and openly assert their dominance as a gang, especially when they come across other bikers.

Whether it is riding their bikes as a group or overseeing criminal activity, their exploits serve to glamourise the myth of bike gangs in 1970s America that highlights a theme of acceptance among outsiders and rebels. In their eyes, a biker can be a family man, a loner or just plain weird, and once you join the gang, you abide by an unspoken code: ride or die. While Nichols’ screenplay focuses on the candidness of the bikers, the unnerving presence of Vandals’ leader, Johnny, establishes a sense of authority that says no one should mess with the gang or their close ones. However, each member’s overwhelming loyalty to the club results in an unexpected yet still discomforting sense of disrespect towards certain female characters, most of whom are treated as decoration or a plaything.

It is perhaps this lack of courtesy that fuels the honest and forthright accounts from Kathy (Jodie Comer). Recalling the first time she meets Benny, she is flirted with and fondled by other members before Benny “rescues” her…before silently intimidating her boyfriend to leave. Yet, through her conversations with Danny, it is not until later that she wistfully reflects on the ramifications of Benny’s true loyalties. In addition, a certain lack of intimacy between the two characters (whether it is PDA or even sexual tension) implies that relationships will always be second to the Vandals, so it does question whether Kathy’s inclusion adds something to the story.

This is answered towards the second half of The Bikeriders, when Nichols starts to humanise the bikers, and audiences see beyond their bravado to expose their own weaknesses. The threat of other and noticeably younger bikers changes the gang’s dynamic, as the mortality of older members causes the Vandals’ aura of invincibility to wane. At this point, the “love triangle” of the film – Benny, Johnny and Kathy – comes to fruition as the gang’s future is at stake.

In a heartfelt performance, Comer’s performance brings the heart in this fraught drama. She has established a natural ability to ease flawlessly into a different character, whether it is a Russian assassin (Killing Eve) or a French noblewoman (The Last Duel), and her portrayal as Kathy, complete with a strong Chicago accent and beehive hairdo, just adds to her impressive line of performances.

Meanwhile, Butler channels James Dean as the cigarette-smoking nihilistic Benny. There is a rawness in his performance that hints at his need for stability but a hesitation in breaking away from the only family he has ever known – a fact that seems to be weaponised by Johnny, who is played in a somewhat typecast role by Hardy (along with a questionable accent). The dominance of these three actors easily overshadows the supporting cast, with only Faist and Michael Shannon as the spaced-out biker Zipco making a notable impression among the film’s large cast.

In his first film since the 2016 Academy Award-nominated Loving, Nichols’ direction combines a grainy 1970s aesthetic with atmospheric lighting choices, making the most of the dimly lit set design and the film’s rural settings. Although the performances are a mixed bag, the visual elements work well to elevate the “legend” of the Vandals, and combined with its 1960s soundtrack, The Bikeriders feels like a nostalgic trip to a forgotten and carefree period of American history.

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