The Bikeriders review: Tom Hardy and Austin Butler lead a tough, tender American tragedy

The Bikeriders

austin butler, tom hardy, jodie comer, the bikeriders review: tom hardy and austin butler lead a tough, tender american tragedy

The Bikeriders is about the death of a dream. It’s not necessarily a noble one. The Vandals MC are a Chicago motorcycle club. They ride around in packs and drink beer. Occasionally, they get into fights, only to crack open a bottle with their former combatants once the adrenaline has petered out and they can be pals again. There’s a melancholy to Jeff Nichols’s drama, which, although fictional, is directly inspired by a 1967 photo book of the same name by Danny Lyon. While Nichols’s film rejects outright nostalgia – or any such naive sensation – it shows a tender affection for those who sought freedom on the open road.

It’s beautifully shot on film, in 35mm anamorphic, by cinematographer Adam Stone, but isn’t fetishistically attempting to recreate Lyon’s work or the look of the era. Instead, The Bikeriders uses its place and setting to explore one of Nichols’s pet themes: people desperately trying to hold onto love, whether it’s a father shielding his family from a (perhaps imagined) apocalyptic storm in 2011’s Take Shelter, or a couple standing strong against the racist legal system in 2016’s Loving.

Several loves lie under attack. There’s the one shared between Kathy (Jodie Comer), whose interview with Lyon (played here by Challengers’s Mike Faist) serves as the film’s narration, and Vandals member Benny (Austin Butler), a real rebel without a cause. He’d die for the patches on his vest. Kathy’s attracted to that stubborn pride, but she’s aware, too, that it’s not exactly the best foundation for a healthy, long-term relationship. Benny’s only love, she fears, may be his bike. Johnny (Tom Hardy), the club’s founder, has grown similarly attached to his misfit stoicism. It’s of a kind he first encountered, as a family man with a steady job, watching Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One on television, which inspired him to create the Vandals.

“Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “Whadda you got?” that film’s famous exchange goes. And, while Kathy’s narration – delivered by Comer in a pinpoint accurate, avian screech of a midwestern accent – may feel reminiscent of Karen Hill’s in Goodfellas, there’s a crucial difference between these stories. A typical Scorsese protagonist is a relative innocent drawn in and seduced into a fundamentally monstrous order. But Johnny, Benny, and even Kathy already live at the idealistic centre of their world, and are here forced to watch as it’s poisoned by outside forces.

austin butler, tom hardy, jodie comer, the bikeriders review: tom hardy and austin butler lead a tough, tender american tragedy
Austin Butler and Tom Hardy in ‘The Bikeriders’ (Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features)

Hardy can play with ease the tough guy with a cracked, glass heart, and Johnny sees poetry in the cast aluminium curve of an engine, or the chariot-like embrace of the handlebars. To him, the Vandals are a chance for life’s outsiders to seek purpose. There’s a revealing monologue from one member, played by Nichols’s friend and frequent collaborator Michael Shannon. It’s about the resentment he feels towards his “clean-cut, American boy” of a brother, who was sent to Vietnam while he wasn’t, despite trying to enlist. The aimlessness of these men has the distinct aroma of self-destruction.

There’s a conclusion here that’s written in the stars – as the end of the Sixties creeps in, so do outside agitators into Johnny’s club, who value power more than they do loyalty. And Benny, even when blessed with Butler’s disarming charisma, becomes less enigmatic and more deluded, sworn to an idea that’s already at death’s door. With The Bikeriders, Nichols complicates what might have otherwise been a romanticised ode to a subculture by transforming it into a true American tragedy.

Dir: Jeff Nichols. Starring: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Norman Reedus. 15, 116 mins.

‘The Bikeriders’ is in cinemas from 21 June

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