Austin Butler stars as Benny in director Jeff Nichols' 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release.

Austin Butler stars as Benny in director Jeff Nichols' 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Opening in theaters June 21st is ‘The Bikeriders,’ directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Tom Hardy, Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Mike Faist, Michael Shannon, Boyd Holbrook, and Norman Reedus.

Related Article: ‘The Bikeriders’ Moves Off Original Opening Date In Midst Of SAG-AFTRA Strike

Initial Thoughts

Motorcycle club culture remains an enigma to most people; to some, it represents freedom and the ability to live outside the mainstream, while to others it appears to be a dangerous and even criminal lifestyle. Set in the 1960s, ‘The Bikeriders’ balances right on the cusp of those two extremes, with writer-director Jeff Nichols chronicling the history of a (semi-fictional) biker club and the people in its orbit navigating both a changing American landscape and the nature of their community itself.

Bolstered by several great performances from Jodie Comer, Tom Hardy, and the supporting cast, ‘The Bikeriders’ is always entertaining and often fascinating. But its shifting point of view and meandering narrative keep it from becoming the great American epic that Nichols clearly wants to make.

Story and Direction

Jodie Comer stars as Kathy, director Jeff Nichols and Austin Butler as Benny on the set of 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release.

(L to R) Jodie Comer stars as Kathy, director Jeff Nichols and Austin Butler as Benny on the set of 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release. Credit: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

In 1968, photojournalist Danny Lyon published a book called ‘The Bikeriders,’ which illustrated through photos and text the four years he spent with a motorcycle club known as the Chicago Outlaws. Jeff Nichols, writer-director of ‘Mud,’ ‘Loving,’ and ‘Take Shelter,’ was inspired by Lyon’s book to create a fictional club, the Vandals, incorporating elements of Lyon’s book and versions of the real-life club members into the rambling narrative of his first feature film in seven years.

Lyon appears in the movie as well, played by Mike Faist (‘Challengers’), and it’s his interviews that in some ways form the spine of the film. Much of it is told in flashback by Kathy (Jodie Comer), a blue-collar Midwestern girl who meets and falls in love with (and eventually marries) Benny (Austin Butler), a brooding, charming Vandals member who is the protégé of Johnny (Tom Hardy), the founder and leader of the club.

Kathy is our way into the story, but it’s here that Nichols’ narrative structure begins to run into problems. With much of the story told from her viewpoint, we never quite get into the inner workings of either Benny or Johnny, the two men who dominate both her life and that of the club. We learn that Johnny – who has a wife and two daughters – decides to form the Vandals after watching the Marlon Brando movie ‘The Wild One’ on television one night. Most of the members of the club are working class, but it’s hinted that Benny – who is as non-verbal as a person can be – comes from a more prosperous background that he’s estranged from. Do these men congregate in the Vandals as a means of rebellion? Or to find a surrogate family? It’s never really made clear.

Jodie Comer as Kathy and Austin Butler as Benny in director Jeff Nichols' 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release.

(L to R) Jodie Comer as Kathy and Austin Butler as Benny in director Jeff Nichols' 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release. Credit: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

What is clear is that the club slowly begins to evolve from a kind of weekend hobby into a criminal organization, attracting more unsavory characters and activities into its orbit. After Benny is almost beaten to death when he walks into a rival bar wearing the gang’s colors, Kathy wants him to quit. But of course, the Vandals are the means through which Benny finds identity and purpose, and he’s also being groomed by Johnny to take over when the latter retires, although why Johnny’s motivations for wanting to bow out are murky at best.

The heart of the film is the tug-of-war between Kathy and Johnny for Benny’s love and loyalty, set against the shifting societal background of late ‘60s America and the changing nature of the club and its purpose. Yet the way in which Nichols tells the story, shifting back and forth in time and never quite allowing us to get into the heads of either Johnny or Benny, makes for a story that lacks urgency or drama, with the allure of the club itself and the stakes for its members never as forcefully presented as they should be.

Despite its structural flaws, ‘The Bikeriders’ still manages to be an entertaining watch. The film is bursting with exacting period details, and Nichols recreates the ramshackle late ‘60s milieu of Midwestern suburban, blue-collar enclaves, rundown homes, and darkened, grimy bars with perfectly immersive effect. And you can’t help but be fascinated, amused, and sometimes gripped by the antics of the club and its members, although Nichols never quite allows the film or its characters to make the case strongly enough for what draws them to this lifestyle.

The Cast

Jodie Comer stars as Kathy in Jeff Nichols' 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release.

Jodie Comer stars as Kathy in Jeff Nichols' 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features ©2024 All Rights Reserved.

While most of the characters are thinly drawn, Jodie Comer’s Kathy is the exception: Comer is outstanding as the no-nonsense, plainspoken, common-sense-smart Midwestern woman who is pulled in a feral way toward Benny and who can appreciate the protective, strength-in-numbers nature of the club (never more so than in a harrowing scene when some bikers who crash a Vandals party try to rape her).

At the same time, Kathy’s eyes are always open to the changes in Benny, Johnny, and the Vandals. For her it’s not just matter of love, but practicality: she wants her husband to live, and their lives to stabilize. Through her voice (and dead-on accent), her reliable way of telling the story, and her agency in dealing with both Benny and Johnny, Kathy proves that she knows who she is and what her life has become, and how to change it. Comer shines throughout the film, her expressive eyes and collected demeanor telling us plenty about this engaging woman.

Tom Hardy stars as Johnny in director Jeff Nichols' 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release.

Tom Hardy stars as Johnny in director Jeff Nichols' 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release. Credit: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

As for the two men in her life, Tom Hardy kind of grunts and mumbles his way through a lot of the movie as a man who has never truly learned to express himself until he got on a bike, and for whom the Vandals may be the greatest thing he ever created, until it’s not. But even with minimal dialogue, Hardy is always such a formidable presence that he captures Johnny’s quiet strength and fearlessness effortlessly. Even though he becomes a criminal, one can almost empathize with Johnny thanks to his steadfast loyalty and unwavering devotion to his own ways (even as the other bikers grow their hair long, Johnny keeps his greased back, just as he saw it in ‘The Wild One’).

Austin Butler’s Benny is less successfully fleshed out, and of the three main players has the least to do. He basically broods, sulks, and occasionally lashes out in anger, his own motivations hidden behind a curtain of tics and poses. Butler, so electrifying in ‘Elvis’ and ‘Dune: Part Two,’ is still charismatic here, but he’s the weakest link in the dramatic triangle of Kathy, Johnny, and Benny, only because he’s pulled between the two yet doesn’t offer enough insight into what he really wants.

While much of the supporting cast, meaning basically the members of the Vandals, don’t get a chance to differentiate themselves from their compatriots, two stand out: Nichols muse Michael Shannon is excellent as always as Zipco, the often hilarious yet clearly unstable wild card of the gang, while Norman Reedus puts Daryl Dixon on steroids as Funny Sonny, a California biker who comes out to Chicago to scope out the Vandals and ends up hanging on with them (in one amusing scene, he even gets paid to stand outside a movie theater and encourage passers-by to go in and watch ‘Easy Rider’).

Final Thoughts

Austin Butler stars as Benny in director Jeff Nichols' 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release.

Austin Butler stars as Benny in director Jeff Nichols' 'The Bikeriders,' a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Nichols seems to be going for an objective portrait of the Vandals with ‘The Bikeriders’: he wants to document this lifestyle without passing judgment on it. But that leaves the movie without a point of view: the sheer freedom and exhilaration of the lifestyle is never quite captured, leaving us more often with a view of the Vandals’ grubby, hand-to-mouth, dissolute existence. The fall of the Vandals might be more tragic if we got a sense of what made being part of the gang – or any club of this kind – so compelling.

Even at over two hours, ‘The Bikeriders’ feels in the end like a series of sketches that never quite add up to the story that Nichols seems to want to tell. In this case, a limited series might have worked better, giving us a chance to dig into the characters’ lives and the existence of the club with more clarity and understanding. As it stands, ‘The Bikeriders’ is like a photo book with no accompanying text: intriguing and often arresting to look at, without enough context of what we’re seeing.

‘The Bikeriders’ receives 6.5 out of 10 stars.

The Bikeriders

"Legacies don't come easy."
71
R1 hr 56 minJun 21st, 2024
Showtimes & Tickets

What is the plot of ‘The Bikeriders’?

In the late 1960s, Kathy (Jodie Comer) begins a relationship with Benny (Austin Butler), a member of the Chicago Vandals motorcycle club led by Johnny (Tom Hardy). The couple’s ups and downs parallel that of the club as they go through a turbulent period of transformation and growth.

Who is in the cast of ‘The Bikeriders’?

  • Jodie Comer as Kathy
  • Austin Butler as Benny
  • Tom Hardy as Johnny
  • Michael Shannon as Zipco
  • Mike Faist as Danny Lyon
  • Norman Reedus as Funny Sonny
  • Boyd Holbrook as Cal

'The Bikeriders,' directed by Jeff Nichols, a Focus Features release.

'The Bikeriders,' directed by Jeff Nichols, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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