The Bikeriders

Biker gangs live by their own code of honor, as The Bikeriders makes abundantly clear. Rather than glamorizing the lifestyle as many films have done, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud) tells a story that suggests there’s little honor in that code after all. This is a gritty drama, based on actual events, that takes us deep inside a Chicago bike club during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. We see how being part of it changes the lives of its members and one member’s wife. Even if you don’t think you’d normally care about a movie on the subject, the look at moral ambiguity is never less than gripping.

Danny (Mike Faist) is a photographer who briefly embeds himself with the Chicago Vandals. He interviews Kathy (Jodie Comer), a woman who met the group by chance and married one of the guys, the emotionally repressed Benny (Austin Butler). She tells the story of how Johnny (Tom Hardy) started the gang, established its rules, and grew the membership, with Benny as his right-hand man. From there, The Bikeriders charts the Vandals’ ups and downs, including increasingly violent run-ins with other gangs and a fundamental shift in purpose when a new breed of men come in with their own agendas that are about more than fellowship and motorcycle enthusiasm.

Telling the story from Kathy’s point of view was a smart choice. As a semi-outsider, she sees how dynamics shift within the group. She accepts the fact that Benny will always put the gang first. They are his true family. That ride-or-die ethic is reflected throughout the film, particularly during a tense scene where the Vandals show up at a bar where Benny was beaten up, their engines revving menacingly outside to announce their arrival. Different people come in and out of the group. Some, like California transplant Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), fit in nicely. Others want to seize power or change the scope. Kathy has a clear perspective on it all, including the impact these events have on her husband.

Comer gives an outstanding performance in The Bikeriders. Playing Kathy with a thick Chicago accent and a fast-paced patter, she palpably conveys the fear that comes from being surrounded by unpredictable men who are drunk on their own masculinity. With this and her work in both The Last Duel and the underseen The End We Start From, she’s quickly becoming one of the most chameleonic actresses working today. Comer is always 100% believable.

Butler and Hardy are equal-level stars here, and what they work up together helps viewers understand the mindset that drives the Vandals. Hardy makes Johnny a soft-spoken guy, a trait that lends him a dangerous edge. Whenever someone wants to challenge Johnny, he quietly asks, “Fists or knives?” The actor lets you know that it doesn’t matter to the character; he’s willing to defend his rule by any means necessary. Butler, meanwhile, makes Benny a guy whose only compass points toward the Vandals. If he’s got to fight for them, he will. If he has to take a beating in their name, bring it on. Butler provides Benny with a “gives no Fs” mentality that is simultaneously mysterious and disturbing. Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Johnny needs Benny more than the other way around.

Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone plunge us into this world with evocative imagery that captures the grunginess of the dive bars, rundown houses, and ratty fields where the bikers carry out their existence. The atmosphere they create draws you in, making it feel as though you’ve hopped into a time machine. Outdoor scenes possess that distinct autumn vibe, the slowly dying foliage mirroring the decay taking place within the Vandals. Attention to detail in the production design adds to the effect.

The Bikeriders portrays bikers as multi-dimensional human beings rather than as stereotypes. The characters build a sense of belonging among themselves, only to find it can’t entirely be sustained. Excellent turns from Comer, Hardy, and Butler make this a fundamentally human story that hooks you as much with the interpersonal relationships as with the gang fights and ever-lurking threat of violence.

out of four

The Bikeriders is rated R for language throughout, violence, some drug use, and brief sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.


© 2024 Mike McGranaghan