THE BIKERIDERS Explores the Depth of the American Man’s Soul

Jeff Nichols’s latest blends heart, tension and dark humor to create the Goodfellas of biker movies

As far as American icons go, the biker has proven among the most versatile. From The Wild Ones to Easy Rider, motorcycles have served as a vital symbol for unfettered freedom, beckoning towards the vast highways across the country, inviting the viewer to explore. Of course, similar to the cowboy or the gangster, this freedom comes at a price, and rarely do fables around bikers escape this harsh reality. To be a biker is to be unfettered from the expectations of society, but the ultimate price paid is almost always fatal.

Jeff Nichols’s newest film, the Bikeriders, firmly exists within this tradition, but attempts to explore the themes underlying these myths and traditions. The characters in Bikeriders are aware of the biker myth (both Wild Ones and Easy Rider get passing nods within the text of the film,) as well as the sneering association society has of their culture. Yet they still choose to ride, or perhaps more potently are too tied into riding that they can’t simply walk away without losing a portion of themselves. In equal parts romantic portrayal and cautionary tale, Nichols has created the Goodfellas of biker movies, and added a necessary piece of the canon.

Based on the work of photographic documentarian Danny Lyon, Bikeriders is centered around two interviews, one in 1965 and one in 1973, of Kathy (Jodie Comer), a woman who finds herself falling into the orbit of Chicago motorcycle club the Vandals. Through her lens we see an unraveling of the culture around these bikers, and the odd idiosyncrasies that command their reality.

Kathy’s narrative encompasses a sprawling cast of character, all embodied by top-of-class character actors, but is really the story of two men: her husband Benny (Austin Butler), an unpredictable but mostly soft-spoken, cool-eyed rebel, and Johnny (Tom Hardy), the founder of the Vandals. Butler and Hardy more or less share the center of the story, as portions of the narrative focus on Benny’s erratic behavior, before shifting to the drama surrounding Johnny attempting to hold together a rapidly expanding movement he began. By balancing these two narratives, Nichols finds his spine to hang a sometimes meandering plot, providing an overarching duo to explore the seemingly vast world of Midwest biking culture.

Butler in particular extends his streak of movie star performances, his bright eyed magnetism holding the frame with captivating command, giving Benny a depth and soul. In some portions he seems to be channeling James Dean, invoking the spirit of the prototypical cinematic model for restless American rebellion. But as happens with all of Butler’s best performances, there is a vulnerability just beneath the surface, that all of his recklessness is covering up a deep-seeded lack of purpose past the colors.

But Hardy steals the show whenever the plot is given over to his hands. At the heart of Nichols’ narrative is an exploration of how men have always longed for a sense of purpose and belonging, and that is never quite as crystalized as in Johnny’s journey. Inspired by bikers he sees on TV, he enters the fold as a means of creating something larger than himself. He admits to focusing more on the club than his own family, controlling the movements of his band of wayward souls with as tight a grip as he can, but as the numbers expand he can feel himself losing control. When control was the whole point, to be able to create a microcosm of the universe where he had the say.

This focus on aimless and anxious men’s need for a sense of place is perhaps where Nichol’s parable is most potent to contemporary viewers, reflecting headlines of unnerved male Americans being driven to fraternal groups with perhaps less than noble aims. Not to say that the Vandals are a one-for-one model of how a group like the Proud Boys comes to be, but there is a sense that both are filled with men who feel like they lack direction. And in reality, the appeal is hard to deny. The most romantic tinges of the film are not in Kathy and Benny’s tense marriage, but between the Vandals themselves, and the great sense of camaraderie their club provides. You can see the appeal of the club more in campfire conversations and teasing than in impromptu midnight rides.

At its core, this is what Bikeriders portrays most captivatingly: the means and lengths that men will go to to feel like they have a place in the world, a sense of dominion. And the danger and violence that surrounds that is part of it, especially when outside forces like the Vietnam War unsparingly changes the American psyche. Just like Goodfellas, it provides a compelling rationale for why someone would fall into an objectively dangerous lifestyle, but doesn’t back away from also portraying the dangers and ultimate price associated. The tension between those two creates an impactful film that explores the depths of men’s quest for purpose, and the dangers that can cause. 

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