The Bikeriders Tom Hardy Austin Butler

The Bikeriders revels in Hollywood biker movie lore and the ruins of the American dream

4 stars out of 5

What happens to the wild men who don’t belong? Based on a photobook, The Bikeriders follows the fall of a midwestern biker gang, the Vandals, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film adopts a structure centred on interviews to dissect a period characterized by tumultuous change. Kathy (Jodie Comer), the wife of one of the bikers, becomes the primary narrator. Not born into that life, she nonetheless stumbled into it when she fell in love (“stupidly”) with Benny (Austin Butler). 

A postmodern revisiting of the biker genre, The Bikeriders invites observations on American myth-building, male camaraderie, post-war aesthetics and visions of freedom. It’s a movie that doesn’t aim for naturalism, instead adopting classic Hollywood techniques to elevate the film’s raw and exaggerated performances through the language of the studio system. When Austin Butler, as Benny, looks past the camera, a gaze that penetrates, his eyes are lit so that we can observe how clear and blue they are. His hair is manicured — partially an affectation of a character who seems blank and unknowable. It is also a throwback to actors like James Dean, who were sex symbols in their own right. Beauty abounds amidst the film’s ugliness, including poverty, violence and decay. 

Austin Butler and Jodie Comer in The Bikeriders
Austin Butler and Jodie Comer in The Bikeriders

Above all else, The Bikeriders is a film of actors and performance. Though presented as hearsay, when Kathy is asked why Jesse (Tom Hardy) founded the Vandals, she tells the story she heard: One evening, Jesse was at home with his wife and daughters watching TV. The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, came on. “What are you rebelling against?” Brando answers, “What you got?” Jesse repeats the phrase to himself. We understand this is a man going through the motions and searching for meaning. 

Hardy’s performance seems shaped around this moment. Brando’s shadow looms heavy in the way Hardy moves and enunciates. It’s a gruff and embodied performance. Jesse is not the fastest; his actions are heavy and confident, like a man in slow motion. His whole body swings as he hooks as if the strength of the rest of the gang is pulling him forward. But as much as this weight bolsters him, it also pulls him down, that pressure draining him. It’s a performance built around less, stripped to its bare essentials. It’s coolness as minimalism, focused by his attentiveness and direct gaze. 

austin butler the bikeriders

Director Jeff Nichols, who has sharpened his gaze on American life in films like Take Shelter and Mud, continues an evolving exploration of masculinity. Not unlike precursors like Sam Peckinpah, who exposed through their hardened male characters the tenderness and the violence of masculine energies — Nichols seeks to unravel and deconstruct how that masculine impetus is driven by the question of what it means to be a good man. As seen through the eyes of the sole female character, these ideas are refined even more, as Kathy can appreciate both the beauty and the horror of the masculine-charged world she finds herself in. 

Violence bleeds out of this examination, and again, like Peckinpah, Nichols understands the intimacy of brutality. We see both sides of this, fighting among men to lead the pack, followed by a handshake and a shared beer. Violence can create closeness as much as it can engender conflict. As the violence becomes uncoupled from any moral code, it explodes outward, serving only base impulses and pleasures. Innocent people get hurt, and people are needlessly killed. Violence is a reality of the world we live in, but it can be channelled. If it’s not, people die, societies collapse and hatred festers. 

the bikeriders

The film’s backdrop, Chicago and the Midwest, emphasizes social decay. Houses seem like they’re sinking, ready to be swallowed up by the earth. The open road not only presents opportunity but also escape. The infrastructure carries a lost beauty, like ruins of an American dream that never quite came to fruition. The idea of the 1960s as a moment of upheaval becomes rooted in failure and disappointment. Our coastal visions of that era, California during the summer of love, are rendered grey and autumnal. Life feels like it’s half-over, and time is running out. 

The romanticism that drives The Bikeriders has an edge of nostalgia but is not necessarily conservative. It doesn’t value conformity as much as it appreciates community. The film celebrates a deep sense of freedom and what happens when it becomes divorced from responsibility, whether to family or a moral code. As the film hurdles towards its conclusion, death becomes increasingly unavoidable. The beauty of the ephemeral cannot be separated from its ugliness.

A fascinating entry into the biker genre, The Bikeriders is indebted to and in conversation with the films that came before. It’s a movie about myths and levels of performance; how we put on a costume to navigate the world. With this refreshing and unflinching look at masculinity, Nichols continues to stand out as one of American cinema’s most compelling filmmakers. ■

The Bikeriders (directed by Jeff Nichols)

The Bikeriders opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 21. 

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