Review – The Bikeriders

GUG_TBR_8

Overview

Synopsis The wife of a leading member of the Chicago Vandals Motorcycle Club tells a journalist the history of its rise and fall.

Length 1 hour, 56 minutes

Release Date August 31, 2023 (Telluride Film Festival), June 21, 2024 (US)

 

Rating R

Distribution Focus Features

Directing Jeff Nichols

Writing Jeff Nichols, Danny Lyon

Composition David Wingo

Starring Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Norman Reedus

Few films have drawn such hype as The Bikeriders, the long-awaited adaptation of Danny Lyon’s 1968 book of the same name, which tells a fictional story based on the real-life Outlaws Motorcycle Club. The movie had a lot going for it, including a lead performance by breakout Elvis star Austin Butler, a remarkable trailer, and a great premise that calls to mind great true crime films like Goodfellas. It was also coming from Jeff Nichols, the critically acclaimed director of Mud, Take Shelter, Midnight Special, and Loving.

Unfortunately, it was one of dozens of major releases that was caught up in the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike, resulting in the film being delayed from December 1, 2023, to June 21, 2024. The movie will also be released early digitally, likely due to the limited box office appeal of a prestige film during blockbuster season, alongside Inside Out 2, Bad Boys 4, Despicable Me 4, and A Quiet Place: Day One. Regardless, the movie is finally out, audiences and critics alike love it, and it will likely go on to be an Oscar darling.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Frequent bloody violence; brawling, punching, stabbing, and gunshots. A bar is burned down after a man nearly has his foot cutoff by a shovel.
Language/Crude Humor: Frequent extreme language including f***, s***, a**, and b****.
Drug/Alcohol References: Heavy alcohol consumption, in addition to characters using weed and heroin.
Sexual Content: A brief clothed sex scene, and another violent scene of an attempted sexual assault.
Spiritual Content: Limited to none.
Other Negative Content: Frequent male violence, sexual content, and crude language.
Positive Content: Themes of brotherhood, loyalty, connection, and overcoming sin.

Review

The Bikeriders is a story told in hindsight through multiple layers of detachment, through a journalist interviewing the wife of one of the members, which is itself an adaptation of a book. It’s a hazy, romantic, and lurid vision of the golden age of motorcycle clubs in the 1960s, when the clubs were still countercultural but weren’t yet organized crime syndicates. 

The story itself only exists in context with the entertainment of the 1960s. The movie lampshades that the characters are inspired to start their club by watching Marlon Brando movies on TV, feeling inspired by the freedom of the lifestyle presented in those movies. This places Bikeriders as a logical descendant of films like Easy Riders, Bonnie and Clyde, and Rebel Without A Cause—stories of the lost generation of the 1960s finding freedom and identity on the open road. 

Lyons originally wrote his book desiring to “attempt to record and glorify the life of the American bike rider,” and even went as far as to become a full member of the Outlaws for several years, but eventually left when unsavory aspects of the group became known. The film very much explores both this romance and hubris, telling a lengthy crime epic of a displaced counterculture and its role in the changing landscape of the 1960s, eventually devolving into chaos, crime, and death.

The film borrows heavily from Goodfellas in structure and execution. In lieu of an ironic “I always wanted to be a gangster” opening, the film instead tells the story of Kathy Cross (Jodie Comer), a young woman who escapes an abusive relationship by falling in love with a free-spirited bad boy motorcycle rider named Benny Cross (Austin Butler). Due to their relationship, she’s drawn into the dangerous world of the Vandals and spins a yarn about the foundation of the group by a middle-aged trucker named Johnny, its various members, major events in their history, how it all fell apart, and what happened to her marriage.

The film finds its heart and soul in the characters of Benny and Johnny. The former of the most committed member of the Vandals, a young street punk with a suspended license who believes more heavily in the group than anything in life. He obeys no rules, but he’s violently loyal to his life and club. Johnny is an older more established man who happens to get sucked into this life. He was married, with a stable job and kids, and started finding meaning in embracing the masculine violence, alcoholism, and freedom of the road. His strength and integrity ultimately turn him into the moral leader of the Vandals, and shields the groups from consequences and poor decision-making as long as he’s around. 

The film’s metatextual relationship with biker movies speaks to the underlying anxiety it’s exploring. The Marlon Brando movies that Johnny is inspired by explore raw, complex, and masculine characters that appeal to young men who feel lost in life. The men who joined the Vandals (and the real-life Outlaws) are lost boys and men seeking to find something bigger than themselves. In an Eldredgian sense, these are law domesticated men seeking to find themselves in their masculinity and identity.

Naturally, the decade the film covers through 1973 proves turbulent. Benny and the gang are aggressive and unstable, and the kind of men that get drawn to that kind of group prove to be even more so. Displaced Vietnam veterans and drug users begin to take over the club and change it. In the mid-1970s, the real-life Outlaws began to devolve into a murder and crime spree. While the group still exists, with 43 chapters, they have a poor reputation due to the criminal allegations against many of their members.

There is a deep tragedy at the heart of The Bikeriders that Benny and Johnny represent. They both represent the logical and emotional conclusions of the deep stirrings of the American male in the 20th century. They’re both stifled by authority and yearn for freedom, but they also fall into a dangerous lifestyle that can either result in your death or require crawling away from those circumstances.

“There’s always hope in movement—in the freedom of going place to place. As road movies have long told us, the death of the human spirit comes with the stillness,” writes my Pamphleteer colleague Jerod Ra’Del Hollyfield. “The motorcycle culture typified by the Vandals embodies the American Dream. It’s the catalyst for a masculine bond of guys who work with their hands and adopt the take no [crap]’ attitude of the Hamiltons and Lafeyettes.”

It brilliantly captures the ironic Scorsese dictum that “Sin is fun,” but also has consequences. The romance of the road and the cost of sin are both real, and intermingle in complicated ways. The Bikeriders captures that tension beautifully and finds the heart of a generation of lost men who turned to the road for answers to life’s greatest questions. It is a delicate illustration of the challenges of non-conformity, domesticity, and hedonism in the heart of the American man.

Positives

+ Amazing script and use of narration
+ Great Comer, Hardy, and Butler performances
+ Beautiful production design
+ Fun soundtrack

Negatives

- Somewhat derivative of other films

The Bottom Line

The Bikeriders is a film that is almost certain to become an Oscar darling, with a fun story, powerful themes, and great performances by all involved!

 

9.3

Tyler Hummel

Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance journalist, a College Fix Fellow, and a member of the Music City Film Critics Association. He has contributed to Geeks Under Grace, The Living Church, North American Anglican, Baptist News Global, The Tennessee Register, Angelus News, The Dispatch, Voeglin View, Hollywood in Toto, Law and Liberty, The Federalist, Main Street Nashville, Leaders Media, and the Catholic Herald of Milwaukee.

Leave a Comment