THE BIKERIDERS Holds a Mirror Up to America

A complex and compelling feature that showcases the magnetism of Austin Butler

The image of a biker brings to mind two things. The first is a somewhat romanticized view of a modern day cowboy, embracing both the freedom of the road, and also finding brotherhood with his fellow bikers. The other is a more menacing one, from a motley looking cohort of brash, loud, folks accompanied by guttural throttling. This duality is often present in any demographic, and in The Bikeriders, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Loving) uses the two extremes to serve as a mirror to a period of American history, as the glory days of the 50s rolls into more troubled times.

Adapted from the 1967 book and photojournalism of Danny Lyon, The Bikeriders charts the rise and corruption of a Chicago based biker gang that eventually grew to be only rivalled by the Hells Angels. Starting in the early 60s, we meet the gang through Kathy (Jodie Comer), a well-raised young woman who after meeting a friend in a local biker bar falls for the charms of Benny (Austin Butler), a reckless but smooth member of the Chicago Vandals (a change from the Chicago Outlaws to avoid…repercussions). He also happens to be the protégé of the gangs founder Johnny (Tom Hardy). A love triangle of sorts emerges as both Kathy and Johnny vie for the affections and attention of Benny, whose free spirited nature challenges their current and future relationships. As time goes on, America goes through social and economic shifts, but the brotherhood of the Vandals continues to grow. New blood bringing an element of danger and unpredictability to its ranks, one to be ignited by the the allure of power.

These tapes and interviews gives the film a core of truth, from which comes a compelling narrative, with Johnny as a King (of sorts) worrying about his legacy and succession, grooming and positioning Benny as his heir (despite Kathy’s pull), and as time goes on, the problems of pretenders to the throne. The film can roughly be split into two eras. The first a golden age as these men find solace with easy other and in their revelries and roughhousing. The gang is more of a clubhouse and social group, where wives, girlfriend, and even kids make appearances. Playfully the core members are introduced, a real cross section of working class men, with their own quirks and dreams. A breezy, romanticized period where the club is (for the most part) the escape from problems rather than the source of them.

The second phase reflects the changing of the times. The Vandals become a victim of their own success. Not only growing in size, but with the rise of chapters in other cities cropping up. An influx of new (bad) blood and a generational shift. Events such as the Vietnam lead to an influx of traumatized veterans into the ranks of the club. any group is the sum of its parts and if you stack those who feel abandoned, ostracized, abused, and exploited, that type of thing festers. For the core members, they’re getting older and priorities are shifting. They want to stay true to their colors, but the changes challenge that. It’s no longer about cracking a beer, it’s about smoking a join, or injecting a vein. Rituals and rules becoming increasingly absurd, and in some cases dangerous. Behavior tilting toward the criminal. The Bikeriders isn’t an overt immersion in the political and social history of America, but Nichols leverages the the gang and the people in it as a mirror to the mood and moral state of the country.

One of the more interesting creative choices in the film is how Kathy serves as the most prominent voice, in terms of narration and offering perspective. It adds a welcome counterpoint to proceedings, as we see this club as outsiders ourselves. Comer crafts a character that feels almost anthropological, bringing humor, blunt commentary, and nuanced incisiveness to bear. Her skepticism helps to ease the film into its later stages, and some of her early concerns become almost prophetic. Johnny apparently founded the gang after watching Marlon Brando in The Wild One and Hardy draws from these seed to bring a similarly inspired ethos and attitude. A blunt and at times weary force, that exudes a paternalistic nature for his crew. Most talk will center around Austin Butlers who just sizzles in the film. It’s brooding turn that captivates the attention as he works the room, people, and camera. It brings to mind Brando in The Wild One, Newman in Cool Hand Luke, or Gosling in Drive, as something that cemented their burgeoning star status. The trio deliver performances attuned to the material, revved up to give the film the full throttled feeling it needs. Mention must also be made of the transient delight that is Michael Shannon as biker Zipco, and the other supporting performances from Emory Cohen, Karl Glusman, Beau Knapp, Damon Herriman, and Norman Reedus, all adding wonderfully realized texture to the film and their respective journeys.

Nichols crafts a truly compelling feature. What begins as a romanticized road trip through the inception and rise of a biker brotherhood, gets a splash of cold water in the face of the shifting political, economic, and social scene of America changes. Warmly lit by cinematographer Adam Stone, with impeccable period detail, and a perfectly curated soundtrack, The Bikeriders oozes it’s era. Something that makes it’s depiction of the slow creep of change, and its impact on those we grow close to, all the more poignant.

The Bikeriders rolls into theaters on June 21st

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