THE BIKERIDERS Makes One Want to Root for the Other Gang

“This is our family. You and me, kid.”

Earlier this year, The Guardian celebrated the 100th birthday of Marlon Brando by ranking his top 20 performances, according to critic Peter Bradshaw. Nearing the top of the list was 1954’s The Wild One, considered by many to be the quintessential film about motorcycle culture ever made. Seeing Brando in the movie all these years later, it’s easy to see how his immersive and compelling performance helped catapult him toward the kind of acclaim reserved for only the most gifted of actors. Looking back, The Wild One and Brando’s performance in it are also reminders of the many parodies and send-ups that both have inspired in the decades since, with some imitators going for laughs and others simply existing as tribute. Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders represents the worst of these knockoffs. It’s the kind of movie that wants the world to believe it’s paying homage when secretly, it’s pretending to offer its own take on a genre that didn’t need to be revisited, let alone revitalized.

In The Bikeriders, Kathy (Jodie Comer) finds herself falling for Benny (Austin Butler), one of the key members of the Vandals, a local motorcycle gang in the Midwest. As the two become close, the presence and influence of Johnny (Tom Hardy), the leader of the Vandals, threatens to come between them. Amid the triangle, however, there is a change happening within the group that will put loyalties and lives to the test. 

Before I start knocking The Bikeriders, I should at least mention the few aspects within it that do manage to succeed where almost everything else about it fails. The look and feel of the film is spot on. Despite its shortcomings, Nichols and his team have done the appropriate research to create a world largely devoid of the colorful 1960s and is instead brimming over with a stark meat-and-potatoes mentality. There’s a realistic bleakness to the environment of The Bikeriders where hope and promise seldom exist, but brotherhood and an undeniable freedom do. The realism extends to the various fight sequences where every member of the Vandals is seen getting pummeled at one time or another, sometimes with injuries that go beyond the generic kinds found in movies. This is vital in making sure that the gang isn’t seen as being superhuman, but as a collection of real flesh and blood men whose fearlessness is their greatest weapon. Aiding this is the somewhat plotless nature of the film. Although a framing device is put in place early on, much of The Bikeriders abandons the traditional storytelling structure to simply follow the gang in their world, wanting nothing more than to observe them as they naturally are.

I’ve been a longtime supporter of the plotless film. Sometimes, there’s nothing more involving than seeing characters simply and organically exist in their natural world without the burden of what Quentin Tarantino once dubbed the “plot rock.” In so many ways, watching the people on the screen be people is the very essence of great cinema. I’m a fan of the plotless film, but not the meaningless one. Despite the fact that Nichols has taken so much time and care to emulate films such as The Wild One, many key ingredients seem to be missing. The biggest of these is nuance, which is an omission that becomes harder to ignore as the film devolves into nothing more than just a series of lifeless scenes strung together. Although I’m sure an attempt was believed to have been made, there’s simply nothing remotely diverting here, from the forced tensions to the phony motivations. It’s almost as if everyone in front of and behind the camera set upon the project to create an imitation of a TCM film. The movie is too influenced by films from the era it’s trying to replicate that it can’t help but succumb to the fantasies such titles put forward. With little else to do, The Bikeriders has no choice but to drown in its own conventionality. 

There aren’t performances in The Bikeriders so much as there are imitations of performances. Butler spends most of his time competing with Furiosa‘s Anya-Taylor Joy for the lowest amount of onscreen dialogue. When Butler does speak, he employs the remnants of his Elvis Presley voice to recite whatever instantly forgettable lines he’s been tasked with delivering. Comer, meanwhile, comes across as a cartoon, although one blessed with the movie’s only good scene, which she admittedly nails. Hardy, who recently stated in the press that he didn’t want to parody Brando, ends up parodying Brando. Finally, Michael Shannon as a fellow rider and Mike Faist as a documentarian pop up just enough times to remind you that they’re in the movie as well.

It’s more than a little mind-boggling to see a movie have one of the most popular actors of the day in its cast and proceed to underutilize him in every conceivable way. This begs the question: Does a movie sold on Austin Butler’s presence really even need Austin Butler? The Bikeriders sure believes it doesn’t as evidenced by the fact that more focus was put on the actor’s hair and biceps than on any real development of his character. As for the movie itself, some may try and sell this as one of those films where the point is that there is no point in an effort to justify loving the flash of it so much, that they didn’t mind (or perhaps even notice) the nothingness of it all. Perhaps a documentary on such real-life subjects would have been better because the world of the Vandals does feel like a fascinating one to those of us who don’t know it. But within Nichols’ film, there’s nothing; no revelation, no feeling of exhilaration, no catharsis. Just a collection of wooden scenes with no bones. Once the credits begin to roll, all that’s left is a movie that’s finished.

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