The Bikeriders: a revved-up replay of the outlaw biker movie

Jeff Nichols channels the iconography of Brando and Dean with a superbly acted but tonally imbalanced film based on Danny Lyon’s photographs of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club.

The Bikeriders (2023)

Just the right amount of hangdog sadness haunts the face of Austin Butler, playing Benny – the blue-eyed James Dean-esque icon of existential freedom at the core of The Bikeriders – to make him feel like an authentic 1960s under-educated outsider. Authentic enough to play the iconographic ghost in this machine, present and yet hardly there, the seemingly untouchable object of affection for both Kathy – the film’s main narrator – and Johnny, the Brando-like head of the Chicago Vandals motorcycle club.

A portrait of the Vandals’ pre-drugs, pre-guns era of relative innocence, The Bikeriders is based on Danny Lyon’s 1967 book of photographs and interviews taken of a real gang. But though Jeff Nichols’s film shares the book’s title, it’s no documentary recreation, rather a revved-up pulp fictional replay of the outlaw biker movie – a 1950s and 60s sub-genre tooled to thrill US drive-in audiences – including its most obvious example, László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), which gets quoted and shown on a screen here. Indeed Lyons’s presence as the interviewer (played by Mike Faist) eventually recedes into near-invisibility.

The Bikeriders begins with the kind of rumble you might find in any number of Hells Angels-themed films of the time. On his own in a bar, Benny is attacked by two intolerant, hefty locals for wearing his ‘colours’. But that fight is left hanging mid-brawl as the focus shifts to Kathy’s first meeting, through a friend, with the grubby, pawing Vandals, whose only attraction for her is how hot Benny looks. Then it moves to the thrill Kathy feels on Benny’s bike, surrounded by dozens of throbbing machines, dominating the highway, with Johnny at the head of the pack.

In some early, establishing this-is-their-world shots, Nichols flirts with the sort of kitsch OTT celebration that makes Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless (1981) such an undying hilarious treat, particularly during our introduction to the gang’s original members – the most memorable being Emory Cohen’s ‘Cockroach’, who says he likes to eat bugs, and Michael Shannon’s middle-aged, mentally off-centre Zipco –  but the inclination to tongue-in-cheek pastiche is short-lived, understandably so, because the slow-growing elements of melodrama need to be taken seriously as they’re assembled piece by piece.

Jodie Comer as Kathy in The Bikeriders (2023)

When a spectacular act of revenge makes the Vandals so infamous that the cops become scared of them, new wannabe members start flocking in, gradually undermining behavioural rules established by Johnny, who has a day job as a trucker and wants Benny to take over the club. This nostalgic rise-and-decline curve is mostly told chronologically, with each period element – locations, machines, costumes etc. – meticulously brought off.

But The Bikeriders is troubled by an uncertainty of emphasis and tone. To get the balance right between mirroring the Dean-Brando-Peter Fonda iconography, genuflecting to Lyon’s source photographs of the real gang and giving proper weight to Kathy’s testimony, Nichols adopts an egalitarian rhythm, switching between the three in a noticeably programmatic fashion. For much of the first half, big scene drama, episodic incident, and illustrated jukebox come in easily anticipated cyclical turns that evince a meandering sense of purpose, although you could argue that that reflects the gang’s own. That said, the music is aptly chosen, most poignantly in the case of the Shangri-Las ‘Out in the Streets’, whose opening five note unison figure of acapella oos becomes a recentring motif. 

Superb performances also ameliorate that jumparound feel. Jodie Comer, as riveting storyteller Kathy, gives the film its main, sassy, affectionately sceptical what-do-you-expect tone. She’s matched in strength by Tom Hardy’s melancholy portrait of Johnny, channelling Brando superbly while adding his own edge of glowering nighttime fatalism. The gang meeting scenes are like so many others in film history; they’re ritualistic and inarticulate to a fault, but in a genre film that kind of repetition can be as much a pleasure as an irritation.

Which brings us back to Benny. However much Austin Butler is made to resemble James Dean, at least there’s no death cult worship. Live-fast-die-young recklessness is merely implied, never pronounced. Instead there’s an underlying drifter nihilism and yearning like that captured in the lyrics of ‘Out in the Streets’ that colours the films ambivalent approach to the meaning of freedom. Benny is meant to represent that ambivalence, but it can’t help but feel like an imbalance that, while Kathy and Johnny are so vividly captured, their object of love, the outsider’s outsider, the one member of the gang, Johnny says, that all the others want to be, remains a cool-looking enigma of absent personality, a void at the film’s heart.

► The Bikeriders is in UK cinemas 21 June.