The Bikeriders (2024, dir. Jeff Nichols) – Second Helping

by | Jun 19, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 116 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 21 June 2024

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

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

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

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A 60s biker gang evolves into an increasingly dangerous group…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE BIKERIDERS (THE SECOND HELPING)?

They say that you are always your own worst critic, and I am certainly guilty of retrospectively condemning my own work when I feel that it’s not up to my usual standards. For instance, I am near certain that I dropped the ball with my previous review for writer-director Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders, as conducted during its run at last year’s BFI London Film Festival. While I did really enjoy the film – and still do, with the only difference between that screening and this one being the Universal logo in front of it instead of original distributor 20th Century Studios – I do feel that my original thoughts were not conveyed as effectively, or as detailed, as they could have been.

So, I suppose this Second Helping review of The Bikeriders is effectively a remake of that original analysis, one that hopefully goes into a bit more detail about what works (and sometimes really works) about this fascinating and rather well-constructed deconstruction of late-60s masculinity.

Nichols’ film takes place during that era in the American Midwest, where truck driver Johnny (Tom Hardy) has formed a motorcycle gang called the Vandals. At first, the Vandals and its members – from bug-eating Cockroach (Emory Cohen) to quiet Latvian Zipco (Nichols regular Michael Shannon) – are nothing more than your regular obnoxious but ultimately harmless (save for the occasional bit of violence) bikers with repulsively “playful” attitudes towards women and other sorts of anti-social behaviour. Over time, though, the club transforms into a more dangerous and unpredictable sect fuelled by rage, drugs and power, by newer, younger members traumatised by war and poverty, which Johnny eventually struggles to control, and even becomes consumed by.

The crux of the film, though, rests on Kathy (Jodie Comer), a woman who is rightfully put off by the Vandals and their leering ways, until she immediately falls for the brooding Benny (Austin Butler), whose fierce loyalty to not just Johnny and his gang but also the very thrill of riding a motorcycle is what drives him (no pun intended). Kathy serves as the main perspective of the film, with the framing narrative consisting of her being interviewed over many years by photojournalist Danny Lyon (Mike Faist) about her experiences with the Vandals, which are of course shown throughout the film.

Placing a female character at the core of an otherwise male-centric story was a stroke of genius on the part of Nichols. Not only does it offer an outsider’s perspective that allows the viewer to see this gang for what it is without the rose-tinted glasses, but it also presents an interesting antithesis to the overt masculinity that is constantly on display around her. Kathy is a character who is fierce and direct, something that Comer’s gripping performance (complete with a heavy Midwestern accent) greatly amplifies, but crucially she is not passive, as her increasingly disturbing experiences with the Vandals – including a menacing scene later on that sadly illustrates the real dangers of being a woman in a deeply male community – help to create a role for her in the story where she actively attempts to figure out what is best for her and her lover Benny.

The latter, incidentally, is a strong example of the kind of masculinity that Nichols is deconstructing here. There are many instances of overt and exaggerated masculine types within the Vandals, including Tom Hardy’s Johnny who is shown to model his leadership style and even certain mannerisms after Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild Ones. Benny, though, is a unique case. He is the kind of rogue-ish loner of few words that was, once upon a time, seen as the epitome of masculine energy that was heavily popular during the mid-20th century, partially due to screen heartthrobs like Brando and James Dean. It helps that Austin Butler is James Dean-ing the hell out of his performance, and that should be taken as a heavy compliment because it is a bright movie star turn if ever there was one.

However, like certain other characters, Benny also displays toxic masculine traits. In his case, he creepily waits outside Kathy’s house after dropping her home for the first time and spends the following day not moving from his spot; he ignites brutal fist-fights with members of rival gangs, even when the situation doesn’t call for it; and perhaps most tellingly, he rarely shows any real emotion, except when his true passion for motorcycling is under threat. Nichols, through his carefully constructed screenplay and naturalistic direction, presents Benny as a tragic case of being so caught up in what he believes makes him a man that somewhere along the way, he’s neglected his own sense of humanity. His arc, therefore, is to be brought back to reality by someone like Kathy, who allows him to slowly open up and realise what he is potentially missing in life, including the ability to emotionally express oneself, something that is all but forbidden among the overtly masculine crowd he’s been hanging out with for most of his life.

To go even deeper into the themes of The Bikeriders would require a much longer piece that I simply do not have the time to construct. For now, though, I will say that it is a fascinating and very well-executed study of late-60s motorcycle life with great performances, gorgeous filmmaking, and a rocking soundtrack of era favourites from the likes of The Shangri-Las and Cream. Certain pacing issues and underdeveloped characters aside, this is a strong feature that should, as I mentioned in my previous review, make you think twice before purchasing that Harley-Davidson you’ve been eyeing.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Bikeriders is a compelling and well-executed study of late-60s motorcycling culture that writer-director Jeff Nichols cleverly presents from a feminine perspective, which allows for certain and often toxic masculine types that were popular at the time to be deconstructed in ways that add to the complexity of the narrative.

Four of of five stars

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