The Straightforward The Bikeriders Has Some Classically Melancholy Jeff Nichols Charms

Austin Butler as “Benny” in 20th Century Studios’ THE BIKERIDERS. Photo credit: Kyle Kaplan. All Rights Reserved.
Austin Butler as “Benny” in 20th Century Studios’ THE BIKERIDERS. Photo credit: Kyle Kaplan. All Rights Reserved. /

Writer/director Jeff Nichols begins the script for The Bikeriders with isolation. That's a bold move considering the movies about surrogate familial bonds in a sprawling motorcycle club. Vandals MC member Benny (Austin Butler) sitting alone in a bar, nursing a drink. Suddenly, rival biker gang members begin accosting him. They hate Benny for wearing his Vandals MC colors in enemy territory. This young rebel refuses to eschew his crew attire. Promptly, Benny is thrown outside and his adversaries rough him up. The scuffle registers as raw, not exciting. This physical altercation, all over allegiances to biker gangs, is utterly ridiculous. That reality is hammered home thanks to the flashback ending with a freeze-frame of Benny just seconds before a shovel hits his head.

Kicking off The Bikeriders crystallizes how even the “golden age” of motorcycle gangs was anything but idyllic. There was always something toxic, something preposterous bubbling under this culture. The gradual deterioration of the Vandals MC over the runtime of The Bikeriders is tragic for characters like Benny. But this opening makes it clear that was inevitable. This realm of oil and revved-up engines was never a Garden of Eden. It was a complicated domain full of equally nuanced human beings whose ingrained issues became more apparent over time.

Presented in a non-linear fashion, The Bikeriders (a fictional yarn inspired by a Danny Lyon book of the same name) is told through reflective anecdotes by Kathy Bauer (Jodie Comer) and Danny Lyon (Mike Faist). Benny's lover, Bauer entered the world of the Vandals MC (a Chicago, Illinois motorcycle gang) a total newbie. She’d never had an interest in motorcycles or being a societal rebel. “I used to be respectable, ya know,” she later pontificates to Lyon. But falling in love with Benny means she inevitably becomes trapped in the Vandals MC orbit. Folks who were previously strangers like gang leader Johnny (Tom Hardy) are soon fixtures of her home. Unfortunately, this also means that more toxic elements of the evolving Vandals MC become equally inescapable.

With The Bikeriders, Nichols is in deeply comfortable terrain. Having previously helmed Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special (among other movies), this native of Little Rock, Arkansas has made his cinematic fascinations apparent. He loves rural backdrops and subverting stereotypical portraits of Southern masculinity with more emotionally complex male characters (like Shelter’s psychologically tormented protagonist, for example). These themes all fit perfectly within The Bikeriders. This story is all about motorcycles driven across muddy terrain. It's also concerned with the psychological costs of guys constantly trying to out-macho one another. What is the cost of suppressing emotions or thinking violence is the only way out of every issue? That’s the undercurrent of Nichol’s script here.

However, The Bikeriders is a sharp contrast to the man’s prior works in its scope. Midnight Special was a tense chronicling of one family on the run. Take Shelter reinforced a claustrophobic air by focusing on one man's potential breakdown.  Loving concentrated on the historical experiences of Richard and Mildred Loving. The Bikeriders mostly fixate on Bauer, Benny, and Johnny. However, several colorful members of the Vandals MC crew also dominate the script. These include Latvian eccentric Zipco (Michael Shannon) or chipper Cockroach (Emory Cohen). Extended solo sequences also chronicle the tragic backstory of The Kid (Toby Wallace). These scenes render that character too narratively tidy in his motivations in a world full of grit and exhaust smoke.

Bouncing all around the place yields some charms in The Bikeriders. These included easygoing scenes of the Vandals MC members shooting the breeze over a campfire. However, it also leaves key elements of Bikeriders feeling undercooked. Benny, for one thing, has no real personality to speak of. Other key supporting players never register as more than caricatures. A few too many of these bikers register as knock-offs of one another no matter how long the camera lingers on them.

All of that makes investment in the Vandals MC's gradual decline challenging. They're amusing to watch be goofy around a campfire. It's a little harder to feel emotionally swept up in their most downtrodden circumstances. The derivative nature of certain male characters inevitably leaves one craving more screen time for background wife characters. What's the story behind folks like Gail (Phuong Kubacki) or fleetingly seen individuals like a lady in a red dress dancing at a party?

The expanded scope of The Bikeriders is a curse and a blessing. In the latter department, hopping all over the place keeps the proceedings light on their feet pacing-wise. Bikeriders is always on the move in its lean runtime running under two hours. Nichols struggles to unearth fresh themes from the biker drama. However, he does put his gift for melancholy storytelling to good use. There are no victors in The Bikeriders. Nichols hammers home that this biker world is one where everyone is always fighting for glory that doesn’t really exist. This organization is guided by rules made up by drunkards in a bar. Fights taking place in a big mud puddle dictate the leadership of the Vandals MC. It’s all ridiculous yet Johnny and others treat it with incongruous seriousness.

There’s an undercurrent of sadness to this concept that Nichols taps into quite nicely. This is especially true once the unavoidable specter of death injects something tangible into the lives of the Vandals MC riders. As an atmospheric piece, The Bikeriders works as an ode to good times that weren’t that good. As an acting exercise, it’s an audacious if sometimes mixed bag. Acting is inherently the act of pretending. However, at times, the cast of The Bikeriders really comes off as people cosplaying Chicago bikers.

Jodie Comer inhabits Kathy Bauer with the same voice Chloe Fineman would use when anchoring a reboot of the SNL sketch "Bill Swerski's Superfans". Michael Shannon continues his erratic commitment to silly foreign accents from Bullet Train with his inconsistent European timbre. Austin Butler is trying really hard to suppress any traces of Elvis Presley from his 1960s tough guy vocals to the point that his Benny voice often sounds flat.

At times, these performances feel too arch to get emotionally invested in. That's a sharp contrast to the performances anchoring past Nichols movies, which ached with authenticity. However, as the feature's scope progresses (the story takes place over roughly a decade), the performers demonstrate subtle accentuations in their physicality communicating the inevitable toll of time. Comer especially excels in this department. The way she has the 1970s version of Bauer compose herself or walk is strikingly (appropriately so) different from the body language of the same woman who ran into Benny at a bar years earlier. The performances of The Bikeriders certainly have their commendable qualities, even when they’re going a bit too broad. After all, who can quarrel with an enjoyably over-the-top line delivery from Tom Hardy?

It's no surprise The Bikeriders can’t measure up to past Nichols masterpieces like Midnight Special or Take Shelter. That’s like saying a new Beyonce tune isn’t as good as “Cuff It.” How could any piece of art measure up to such extreme standards? On its own merits, Bikeriders is a perfectly serviceable movie. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t take many narrative or visual risks to become truly memorable. In the years to come it'll be hard to remember The Bikeriders against a long legacy of other biker films. Still, if you’re like me and can’t get enough of that very specific flavor of Southern melancholy Nichols has refined, it’s worth viewing. Just know the proceedings sometimes run out of gas or whatever other motorcycle metaphor you can think up.

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