Film Review: “The Bikeriders” – Born to be Riled

By Ed Symkus

A 1968 book of photos and interviews on a motorcycle club makes a fictionalized transition to the screen.

The Bikeriders is written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, AMC Boston Common, and Showcase Cinema at Legacy Place.

Tom Hardy, Austin Butler, and others in the macho gang in The Bikeriders. Photo: 20th Century Studios

I have a few quibbles with The Bikeriders, but they’re much more about how it’s being sold to prospective viewers than about the film itself.

I’ll start with the trailers — and for the record, I haven’t watched a trailer before seeing a film in more than a decade.

Of the three that I watched post–The Bikeriders (thank you, YouTube), one was entirely misleading (Hey, that’s not the film I just saw!), while the others gave away too much and, of course, were completely out of context.

I also had a problem with the billing of the credits, which topline Austin Butler, then Jodie Comer, then Tom Hardy. Comer, who is splendid as Kathy, the film’s central character — a “nice girl” townie who gets swept up in the world of a motorcycle club — has the most screen time and dialogue. Most of The Bikeriders is told from her point of view. Butler, in his follow-up to Elvis (though Dune: Part Two was released before this one), is certainly a major character in the telling of the story. But his Benny — a tough guy loner — has very little dialogue and he vanishes from the screen for extended periods. The truth is, he seethes more than he acts (though he is a pretty good seether). Hardy, low man on the totem pole with his third-place billing is, in my mind, the star of this film, subtly showing off the many layers of his character — soft-spoken gang leader, decision-making powermonger, and reluctant family man. He exercises a range of acting he’s touched on before, but never all in one performance. So Hardy should have been given top billing –as the motorcycle club president Johnny.

Other little niggling things that bother me are the fact that this is being sold as a story featuring a love triangle between the three leads. That may make sense on one level, but that selling point is calculatingly disingenuous. Also, this is in no way, as has been hinted, a modern-day take on The Wild One and — once again going back to the trailers — Hardy does not do a Brando impersonation.

Moving on to what’s terrific about The Bikeriders, I’ll start with the script’s approach to eschewing any sort of straightforward plot. It all works, very well, as a look at a lifestyle — that of a group of motorcycle aficionados in the mid-’60s who form a riding club. It’s a slice-of-life character study of people who make and follow — and sometimes disobey — their own rules.

Though it’s based on real-life experiences of a Chicago motorcycle club that were chronicled in the 1968 photo book of the same name, the film’s writer-director Jeff Nichols was very loose with the facts and heavy on the fictionalization. My guess is that it was all to the film’s benefit.

Austin Butler and Jodie Comer in The Bikeriders. Photo: 20th Century Studios

It’s framed as a series of interviews with Kathy by the book’s author/photographer, Danny Lyon (played here by Mike Faist), and chronicles her involvement with the club; her story is visualized on screen around her interview sessions.

What we get is a series of compelling performances by a cast in which the background characters are just as interesting as the leads, with some outstanding work from Michael Shannon as the often out-of-it Zipco, and an unrecognizably shaggy Norman Reedus as Funny Sonny.

Their club is called the Vandals. Their dream is to hang out together, to be loyal to and protective of each other, and to celebrate the freedom of the road. Some of these folks are raucous and short-tempered, others are quietly crazy. The film’s moods range from very funny to shockingly tragic. When trouble calls, decisions such as “are we fighting with fists or knives” must be made.

So, what’s it all about? The easiest answer is shattered dreams that, against all odds, result in just about everything working out OK.

Ed Symkus is a Boston native and Emerson College graduate. He went to Woodstock, interviewed Herb Alpert, Bob Denver, Julie Andrews, and Vince McMahon Jr., and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, Capri, and the Isle of Wight with his wife Lisa.

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