The Bikeriders (2023, dir. Jeff Nichols) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 13, 2023

Certificate: TBC

Running Time: 116 mins

UK Distributor: 20th Century Studios

UK Release Date: TBC

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN THE BIKERIDERS?

Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Norman Reedus, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman, Beau Knapp, Emory Cohen, Karl Glusman, Toby Wallace, Happy Anderson, Paul Sparks

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Jeff Nichols (director, writer), Sarah Green, Brian Kavanagh-Jones and Arnon Milchan (producers), David Wingo (composer), Adam Stone (cinematographer), Julie Monroe (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In the late 1960s, a Midwestern biker gang deals with the changing times…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE BIKERIDERS?

The image of big, muscly men riding about on motorcycles is one that writer-director Jeff Nichols is eager to break down in his new film The Bikeriders. More often than not, he succeeds in dissecting the idea of masculinity that was once a desired status for most men, especially during a particular time period where being brutish and emotionally closed-off was considered the peak of manliness.

Nichols’ film is inspired by a 1968 photobook by Danny Lyon (who is also a character in the movie, played by West Side Story breakout Mike Faist), wherein the photographer captured the daily lives of outlaw motorcycle gangs in the American Midwest during the mid-60s. The Bikeriders, though, is about a fictional gang known as the Vandals, led by truck driver Johnny (Tom Hardy) who became inspired to live the carefree life of a motorcycle gang leader after watching The Wild One with Marlon Brando (which, to a degree, allows Hardy’s oddly high-pitched Brando-esque accent here to make perfect sense).

However, the main perspective is that of a young woman named Kathy (Jodie Comer), who recalls to Faist’s Lyon in numerous interviews how she came round to the Vandals, after initially being disgusted by the leather jacketed men that leave handprints all over her jeans, after locking eyes with young gang member Benny (Austin Butler). A brooding and largely silent young man whose love for motorcycle riding comes before just about everything else, Benny quickly wins Kathy’s heart – they marry within five weeks – and gives her a front-row seat to the changing dynamics within the group’s leadership, as Benny, Johnny, and several other members contend with their own desires for power and masculine dominance.

It doesn’t feel like an accident that Nicholas has elected to show an extremely male way of life through the eyes of a woman. Through Comer’s Kathy, we see a group of men who constantly try to reassert their manliness through their roaring motorbikes, thick leather jackets, endless cigarette smoking, and some rather animalistic violent tendencies. However, she also witnesses the raging vulnerability that often seeps through their stubborn masculinity, particularly in her handsome toy-boy Benny who has adopted many of the manly ideals made popular at the time by the likes of James Dean, but is clearly hiding a deeper insecurity about making the most of what remains of his life. Through this outsider’s perspective, Nichols manages to offer an intriguing angle that deconstructs the very image of manhood that many members of the Vandals, including its founder Johnny, strive to achieve, and pokes several gaping holes into their outward expressing of their gender identity that shields something more tender underneath.

Helping to accentuate Nichols’ smart and delicately layered script, along with his grounded style of filmmaking that combines Adam Stone’s grainy cinematography with tightly edited sequences by Julie Monroe, is an ensemble cast that has been perfectly hand-picked to display varying levels of late-60s masculinity in a much more analytical light. Austin Butler taps into the spirit of James Dean as easily as he was able to do with Elvis Presley, and puts in a compellingly rebellious performance that silently commands your attention, while Tom Hardy is great as you can see his character’s humanity slowly slip away as he and his gang grow more powerful and dangerous, while still being able to show a deeply flawed and, yes, emotionally vulnerable person underneath his hardened exterior (as for his accent, you do get used to it after a while, though it’s never as distracting as it may seem in the trailer).

There are also some fun supporting turns from the likes of Boyd Holbrook, Norman Reedus – sporting a gnarly set of rotted teeth – and Nichols regular Michael Shannon, but Jodie Comer proves to be the film’s not-so-secret weapon, with her impeccably heavy Midwestern accent easily hooking you onto this interesting story, while her sharp determination and refusal to entirely conform to what is expected of her as the wife of a Vandal gives her character plenty of fuel to ride on.

Coming in briskly at under two hours, the film carries enough solid material to hold your attention, though at times the script tends to juggle one too many characters at once. One key example is a young wannabe Vandal played by Toby Wallace who seeks to escape his abusive household, and though his story ultimately does become important in the overall trajectory of the plot, more could have been done to better integrate his arc into the narrative instead of it simply coming and going as required. It’s not a terrible character, and Wallace is very good in the role, it just needed to have felt less like a tag-on.

By and large, though, The Bikeriders is a well-executed dissection of 60s masculinity that’s smartly written and expertly performed in ways that make you want to think twice before purchasing that Harley-Davidson you’ve been eyeing.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Bikeriders is a compelling dissection of late-60s masculinity that writer-director Jeff Nichols cleverly presents from a feminine perspective, with excellent performances by an ensemble that includes Austin Butler, Tom Hardy and Jodie Comer tapping into its more vulnerable edge.

Four of of five stars

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