The HoloFiles

REVIEW: The Bikeriders

By George & Josh Bate

the bikeriders review

Tom Hardy and Austin Butler – two of the industry’s most compelling actors – starring in a motorcycle gang movie from the director of Midnight Special and Mud is an easy sell. Add an ensemble cast that also includes the likes of Jodie Comer, Michael Shannon, Boyd Holbrook, Norman Reedus, and Mike Faist and immerse them in a story seeped in 1960s Chicago biker culture and The Bikeriders has the potential to be one of the coolest movies in recent years. But, beyond aesthetic slickness, does The Bikeirders live up to the immense potential its premise, setting, cast, and director foster? The answer isn’t black and white, much like the morals of the bikers at the heart of Jeff Nichols’ new film. 

Inspired by a true story that served as the basis of an acclaimed photobook by Danny Lyon in 1968, The Bikeriders tells the tale of the Chicago Vandals, a fictionalized version of the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club. The film tracks the start and growth of the Chicago Vandals over the course of a decade, largely through the perspective of Kathy (played by Jodie Comer), the girlfriend of Benny (played by Austin Butler), one of the club’s bikers. Kathy is interviewed by Danny Lyon (played by Mike Faist), the photographer whose book served as the basis for the film, about the ins and outs of the Vandals, including the club’s illicit activities, comradery among its members, and eventual downfall. 

Claiming that The Bikeriders has the potential to be one of the coolest movies in recent years isn’t hyperbole. The film is flooded with the thematic and aesthetic swagger and cadence of Goodfellas and The Wild One. This swagger manifests in the isolation of much plot or narrative as the film is certainly one of atmosphere and aesthetic than it is story. What results is a journey that does not try to tell a story, but, rather, is intended to evoke a feeling – the kind of intangible coolness that make motorcycle clubs like the Vandals so appealing.

Without much of a story, The Bikeriders largely unfolds as a series of interactions among members of the club. A sizable chunk of the runtime positions the audience as a fly-on-the-wall of the Vandals, allowing us to see the kinds of stories the members told one another and the different personalities of the various members. Ultimately, this means showing the bikers at different parties and events, getting into spots of trouble, and highlighting their relationships with one another. This approach to crafting a film around character interactions, rather than overarching narrative, enables the movie to excel in cultivating the kind of atmosphere Nichols and company were aiming for, but also means proceedings can be quite slow or even boring at times. 

the bikeriders review

Adding fuel to the fire is the unfortunate lack of substance and emotion in The Bikeriders. For a film that spends an incredible amount of time simply sitting with its characters and letting the audience see how they interact, The Bikeriders is surprisingly superficial. Seeing the different members exchange jokes and share drinks make for a fun time, but, eventually, it becomes clear that the film, much like the often boozy and inconsequential conversations between the bikers, is disappointingly insubstantial. 

Amplifying the lack of substance in The Bikeriders is the film’s perplexing failure to establish a lead character that the audience can observe the introspections of. Initially, Jodie Comer’s Kathy emerges as the obvious lead, given that she, like the audience, is an outsider coming into the biker club. Kathy’s thoughts about the gang are relayed through interviews with Mike Faist’s Danny Lyon that serve as a pseudo-narrator for the film, although her thoughts largely serve to detail the ins and outs of the club rather than exploring the inner-workings and emotions of Kathy. Speaking of Faist’s character, Danny Lyon is another potential lead character that falls short. Again, Lyon has an outsider quality that the audience can empathize with, but his views on the club and its members always remain illusive. Then, there are Austin Butler’s Benny and Tom Hardy’s Johnny. At different points, both of these characters emerge as suitable candidates as leads, although the film struggles to explore the motivations and emotions of these men with much depth. Ultimately, this failure to establish a lead character and get inside their head produces a certain emotional distance between the audience and its characters – we’re a fly-on-the-wall who observes everything happening on the surface and yet very little of anyone’s inner psyche.

the bikeriders review

Despite these issues, there is still plenty to appreciate about The Bikeriders. Tom Hardy, despite leaning a little too heavily into his performance as Eddie Brock in the Venom movies, brings a captivating animation and theatrical quality to the film. Hardy’s accent is inconsistent, his mannerisms are at times unintentionally comical, and his delivery of dialogue is all over the place, but there is something so undeniably entertaining seeing Hardy take on this role. The Bikeriders excels most when time is spent with Hardy’s character, who adds much needed personality and uniqueness to the proceedings.

Adjacent to Hardy for much of the film is Austin Butler. Coming off of an impressive streak including Elvis and Dune: Part Two, Butler has become one of the industry’s big new names. And, rightfully so. Butler has an unreserved charisma and brooding charm that make him perfect for the role of Benny in The Bikeriders. Butler evokes James Dean and Marlon Brando with an effortlessly cool performance that significantly helps writer/director Jeff Nichols achieve the sort of swagger and feeling he was aiming for. 

the bikeriders review

The rest of the ensemble similarly fit perfectly into the world Nichols has created. Michael Shannon, who has previously collaborated with Nichols, is magnetic and hilarious in his relatively few scenes, while Jodie Comer brings an old-school flavor to the character of Kathy, with a unique dialect and cadence that will feel right at home for viewers from Chicago and the Midwest. 

VERDICT: 6.5/10

The Bikeriders channels an aesthetic swagger and evokes a cool atmosphere and feeling, while abandoning any pursuit of more intricate plotting or storytelling. Much of the nearly two-hour runtime is spent simply hanging out with the bikers of the Chicago Vandals as they party, drink, and, of course, ride their amazing bikes. Admittedly, it is a lot of fun to spend time with these characters even if the film is slow and even boring at times. Where The Bikeriders errs, however, is in its lack of substance or emotion. This is, in large part, due to the film’s failure to establish a lead character, resulting in an unfortunate emotional distance as the audience struggles to get inside the head of any character. Despite this emotional distance, the film sports captivating performances from Austin Butler and Tom Hardy, with the latter excelling with a slightly ill-fitting Eddie Brock-esque theatricality. Without much of a story to tell and unfolding largely as a series of interactions among characters, The Bikeriders falls short of the immense potential its cast, director, and premise imply, although it triumphs in evoking a singular atmosphere that taps into simply how effortlessly cool these bikers were.

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