"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Bikeriders

THE BIKERIDERS is writer/director Jeff Nichols’ (TAKE SHELTER, MUD, LOVING) version of a biker gang movie. It’s loosely adapted from a 1968 book by Danny Lyon, who spent several years riding with the Outlaws Motorcycle Club of Chicago. Nichols incorporated Lyon as a character (played by Mike Faist of WEST SIDE STORY and CHALLENGERS) who’s spending time with the fictional Vandals motorcycle club, taking photos and recording interviews, and if you step back you can picture a version where he’s the lead. We would learn about this world along with him and then it would sort of become his story as he deals with the macho insecurities raised by trying to fit in with these guys. Eventually he realizes it’s bringing out a dark side of him but in the end he learns about himself or some shit. You know the drill. Like a sleeveless version of Matthew Rhys’ character in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.

Nichols makes the more interesting choice of keeping Lyon as strictly a listener and framing the movie around his interviews with Kathy (Jodie Comer, STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER), wife of one of the Vandals. So we hear this tale of masculinity through the perspective of someone who was there enough to buy in but also licensed to scoff and call bullshit when she wants to. A male narrator would surely get caught up in romantic notions of bikers nobly living by a code, but Kathy dismisses it as just making up a bunch of dumb rules all the time to feel important. In one scene she repeatedly interrupts her story to complain about too many bikes being parked on her grass, so she’s a uniquely qualified narrator.

Otherwise this is very dude-heavy, and it’s one of those movies that comes along every couple of years where holy shit, what a parade of great character actors and hot shit newcomers we have here. The headliners are Tom Hardy (CAPONE) as Vandals founder Johnny and Austin Butler (THE DEAD DON’T DIE) as his wildest protege (and Kathy’s husband) Benny, but also you got Nichols regular Michael Shannon (JONAH HEX), a guy from Justified (Damon Herriman), a guy from Justified: City Primeval (Boyd Holbrook), a guy from BLADE II (Norman Reedus, who probly wasn’t even cast, just drove up on his motorcycle and was suddenly in the movie), a guy from the ROAD HOUSE remake (Beau Knapp), a guy from THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (Emory Cohen), a guy from THE NEON DEMON (Karl Glusman), a guy from COLD IN JULY (Happy Anderson), and Will Oldham (WENDY AND LUCY) as a bartender.

It seems to me pretty common for a hot shit ensemble period gang movie to end up underwhelming people; see MOBSTERS or GANGSTER SQUAD or BLACK MASS (though I’ll probly like that one when I see it) or some might say PUBLIC ENEMIES. Reedus was already in DEUCES WILD. I was prepared for this to be one of those because honestly I just wanted to see Hardy doing a Chicago accent and nasally voice muttering at these dudes. But I’m happy to have found that it’s that and more.

Kathy knows the stories of how things went down, repeats the ones she believes, but doesn’t seem invested in the mythmaking. For example, in a key scene she says she heard Johnny got the idea for the club from seeing THE WILD ONE on TV. We get to see him in his living room one day after work, being awed by Brando, repeating a cool line, trying to imitate him. When his wife (Rachel Lee Kolis) asks “What?” he says “nothing” and shrinks down. Throughout the movie we only occasionally see Johnny at home, but we hear that he responsibly holds down a job as a truck driver. I guess his wife is out with him sometimes but we never know what she thinks of all this.

And then there’s Benny. The only guy Kathy doesn’t think is a loser when she’s first dragged to the biker bar. She still tries to get rid of him but he gives her a ride home, stays outside the house overnight and all day until her boyfriend gets pissed off and leaves her. She marries Benny five weeks later.

He’s also the only one not scared to wear his Vandals vest when he’s out by himself. Gets his foot nearly chopped off over it but doesn’t give too much of a fuck. The thing is, most of the others are normal guys who like motorcycles and hanging out at bars acting tough, so they decided to do this thing and make themselves into these guys. But Benny really is that guy, the guy they wish they could be. Johnny wants Benny to inherit leadership of the club because he doesn’t give a fuck. Same reason he says no. There’s a very not-subtle homo-erotic current to it that we can take literally or not, but Johnny and Kathy spend the movie fighting over Benny.

Like GOODFELLAS or BOOGIE NIGHTS or DAWN OF THE DEAD you got your fun times where everybody’s being crazy and doing what they do but eventually there’s a turning point where they’ve pushed things too far and/or times have changed and the inevitable collapse happens. For THE BIKERIDERS the big shift is when the club starts to grow too much and they start getting new members who took them too literally. Or guys who are back from Vietnam, with addictions, traumas and killing experience. That changes things real quick. Even before that there’s a great subplot about the next generation coming along and assuming the Vandals are for real. I love the way this character “The Kid” sees them drive by while he’s stealing hubcaps, and it’s like he saw Superman. Or Marlon Brando. The camera tells us The Kid is gonna be important and then each time he briefly appears again there’s a little more progress toward becoming like the Vandals, or what he thinks they’re like. But also he seems to have more of a chip on his shoulder each time.

The actor who plays The Kid is named Toby Wallace, it was killing me trying to place where I knew him from, but it was the great Australian movie THE ROYAL HOTEL. He’s got a scary/enigmatic charisma in that one too.

As foretold in prophecy there are great performances all around, and Hardy can still delight me with single syllables. He tries to break up a fight just by standing between the two people and muttering, “Nah. Nah.” Meanwhile Butler smolders with that strange quality he has of being both meticulously prepared and straight up born to do this. Like, he probly spent months analyzing the psychology of the character in ways we’d never fathom but also could’ve just walked onto the set pouting and batting his eyelashes and made people feel exactly the same envy and fascination Johnny feels for Benny.

But the biggest standout might actually be Comer, the lead and top billed actor, doing an accent and voice and a really funny conversational style branching off into little tangents. Would deserve some nominations but you know how those biker wives always get a raw deal.

A subtle way this creates its own world is by not using the same old songs to evoke the period. There’s lots of good not-obvious soul and blues music playing throughout – Gary U.S. Bonds, Bill Justis, Magic Sam. They do use “Mannish Boy,” which I know I’ve heard in other movies dealing with questions of masculinity, but I like that they use the version from Electric Mud. The one where Marshall Chess convinced Muddy Waters to go psychedelic. Apparently controversial at the time, but easy to love now.

One odd touch I liked, but it’s a SPOILER: there’s a whole thing where a beloved member of the club dies suddenly, and it really crushes them all. Then they learn that the deceased’s parents won’t accept the flowers they sent. They all show up for the memorial and and line up like Marines in front of the church, but the parents spit on Johnny and tell him off. What I find really interesting though is that it wasn’t gang stuff the killed their son. He was just driving and a car came out of nowhere and he crashed. It would be good drama anyway but I like that they’re rejecting the entire motorcycle life, not just the bad parts.

Although this is partly the story of those bad parts taking over the life, I think the central tragedy of THE BIKERIDERS (spoiler) is Benny. He’s the only one of the original members who truly doesn’t give a fuck, who knows how to be totally free like they all picture themselves, but being that way makes it impossible for he and Kathy to be happy together. He constantly risks life and limb for no reason, prioritizes motorcycle shit over his marriage, really fucks up by leaving Kathy in a very dangerous situation while dealing with Vandals business, and also he’s such a tough guy he doesn’t know how to cry. A recipe for disaster. In the end Kathy seems to think they lived happily ever after, but it doesn’t seem to me he’d agree.

Some of Lyons’ photos are shown during the end credits, which is a pretty obvious thing to do, but as you see them and realize how the movie attempted to evoke them it feels like a real tribute to the original work. Lyon is still alive and was able to visit the set – he notes that the character isn’t at all like him, but he got emotional seeing them re-create one of his photos for the first time Kathy sees Benny. I read some good articles about him in relation to the movie, but strangely they don’t mention that he was the official photographer for one of the most significant groups in the civil rights movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was present at most of the historic moments they were involved in, even was roommates with John Lewis at some point, and it seems to me some of this must’ve overlapped with when he was getting to know the Outlaws? He says Hunter S. Thompson, who’d written a book about the Hell’s Angels, warned him against getting involved with the Outlaws. Instead he went as far as becoming an official member between 1966 and 1967, before becoming disillusioned with the club transforming into a criminal enterprise, as in the movie.

A sign that Nichols had something specific to say in his adaptation is that the Outlaws go back to the ‘40s, not some guy imitating Brando. According to Time, the idea of the movie comes from one line in the preface to the 2003 edition, about a leader named Johnny being challenged, and one chapter about Benny, as told by Kathy.

Nichols learned of the book from his musician brother Ben, who tried to get Lyon to let him use a photo for an album cover for his band Lucero. That didn’t work out but they did record a song called “Bikeriders,” also based on the Benny/Kathy chapter, and part of it plays on the end credits. You might think it’s a describing-the-plot song like in a Will Smith movie, but it’s actually from 20 years ago.

The dream of freedom Lyon saw in the biker clubs ultimately turned rancid, but there’s something beautiful about him documenting it with his art, in turn inspiring other works of art decades later. I would’ve been fine with just a good Tom Hardy showcase, but this is also a good movie.

Trivia: Stunt coordinator Freddie Poole has been Sylvester Stallone’s stunt double since BULLET TO THE HEAD and is action director for Tulsa King.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 26th, 2024 at 11:48 am and is filed under Reviews, Crime, Drama. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

12 Responses to “The Bikeriders”

  1. The ‘roaring up to funerals of members to march in like fireman/police/marines and bury/cremate the ‘colors’ with the body’ is something clubs do. I had a roommate whose uncle was a club member that got squished (just a stupid, drunken motorcycle accident. No “Sons of Mayhem” or whatever dramatics). And he said while the act was kind of awesome and kind of sweet. It was also kind of terrifying (especially for the older mourners) to have the sudden tumult, then the militaristic entrance by toecutter and his gang

  2. It’s great to see Jeff Nichols continuing his run of compelling cinema! On the Nichols brothers/Lucero connection, Jeff Nichols also directed a short film based on a Lucero song, ‘Lucero – Long Way Back Home’. It’s on Youtube, stars Michael Shannon and is well worth 7 minutes of anyone’s time!

  3. I can never warm to Jeff Nichols’ movies — they’re always a little slow and sleepy for me. I really loved Take Shelter, but I was nodding off during Midnight Special, and I didn’t think there was anything all that special about Mud except for one expertly-directed third act getaway sequence. Maybe this will be the one for me. Kinda feel like I have to support Comer, who was reinventing the game weekly on “Killing Eve” a while back.

    It is kind of funny that, in that above poster, Tom Hardy really, really resembles young Mel Gibson.

  4. I was expecting more of a deconstruction type thing here, but this surprisingly sounds exactly like every biker movie I’ve ever seen. There’s always the one biker who actually believes in that outlaw bullshit, and he always gets disillusioned when he realizes that all the junkie rapist nihilists he’s surrounded himself with are in it for the drugs and rape and nihilism and not, like, The Code Or Whatever. There’s always the one old lady the “good” biker should treat better but doesn’t because he’s too far up his own ass. And yes, there’s always the biker funeral that really freaks out the squares, and they all act like it’s the world’s greatest injustice that the reckless drunken asshole who spent every second of every day flying down the road at high speeds without wearing a helmet died doing exactly that. Really makes you think, you know?

    My dad died on a bike. I figure that was his choice. He chose being cool over being around to be my dad. So I don’t have a ton of sympathy for these assholes. This is the ride they bought a ticket for.

    I’m not really nuts about biker movies, because there’s no way to make these rape LARPers look cool. They’re always gonna be petulant morons who’ve never done anything worth doing so they self-mythologize themselves into viking warrior-poets or whatever. But at least the old biker movies were documenting a current phenomenon. There’s an anthropological aspect to them. A bunch of them even starred the actual Hell’s Angels. I’m not really sure if I care enough about this topic to watch a bunch of Hollywood A-listers playact it.

    I do think that Marlon Brando story is pretty well traveled. I’ve heard it told about Sonny Barger, founding member of the Oakland Hell’s Angels. But there’s probably some truth to it. These guys couldn’t wait to get into movies.

  5. I loved this one.

    I think it does suffer from being modelled after Goodfellas, because then the film turns out to be a character drama with very little excitement, but it’s so well-made I didn’t mind. Then again, I’m a Nichols x 2 fan; He’s one of my favorite working directors, and the Lucero CD The Bikeriders is on (along with the previous one, That Much Further West) still gets a lot of playtime.

    And Comer absolutely deserves all the praise, she’s amazing; It’s good to see her in a movie that deserves her. Vern, did you hear the original interviews Lyons did with Kathy? Comer got her down almost perfectly. They’re available in Lyon’s website, Bleakbeauty dot com.

  6. burningambulance

    June 26th, 2024 at 6:26 pm

    Majestyk –

    I don’t know if it’s available where you are, but the FX series MAYANS MC (which started off as a spinoff from SONS OF ANARCHY, but instantly became its own thing) is pretty fascinating and worth checking out. It’s a much better show than SONS ever was, and really does a lot to demythologize the whole biker thing. A lot of it is about generational trauma (fathers vs sons, brothers vs brothers vs secret half-brothers) … half the time it’s more about heavily tattooed dudes hugging it out and crying, and trying to figure out how to get out of the dead-end biker life, than getting in bar fights or shanking people in prison. There’s plenty of that stuff, too, of course.

  7. I gotta say, burningambulance, I’m with you on what makes MAYANS MC pretty good. But it’s also one of those shows where you just KNOW 99% of the audience is still, “Yeah, bikers do rule, don’t they?” I feel like now that I’m older, I’m more cognizant of who I’m watching certain shows with, not in person but in the world. Sometimes I can make compromises. But back in the day, stuff like “24” was appointment viewing for me, and I’d never be able to watch that today knowing that most of the other viewers think this silly shit is sincere, and an accurate portrait of any actual War On Terrorism (TM). I’m probably missing some good shows and movies with that attitude, or at least some enjoyable experiences.

    Bikeriders at least seems it’s more on the “aren’t these guys idiots?” spectrum. But it’s also the sort of thing that has kind of a narrow appeal, so you can watch it knowing you’re not in concert with a bunch of jackass dudebros quietly catching a Friday night screening and silently nodding at the “profundity” of the motorcycle lifestyle.

  8. I can’t think of a universe where Majestyk would enjoy MAYANS MC, mostly because

    a.) It’s still at least 2/3 “Man, that outlaw life is cool!”

    b.) It has nearly everything he hates about television, including endless subplots that go nowhere and characters who get dragged along although their story has been told. (Seriously, by season 4 I was so pissed off by it, I skipped the final season and just read a synopsis of the finale on Wikipedia instead.)

    That said, I kinda have to defend SONS OF ANARCHY, which IMO took itself a lot less serious than most critics (or even fans) wanna give it credit for and actually was some really entertaining pulp television.

  9. You could have stopped at “It’s a TV show.” I’ve basically sworn off the whole format. I’ve only got so much life left. I’ve got to budget my time accordingly. There are far too many movies I want to watch and rewatch (and re-rewatch and re-re-rewatch) for me to ever choose to spend dozens of hours on a single show.

    I couldn’t even get through CHUCKY. And Chucky’s my boy. If Chucky can’t get me through a TV show, no one can.

  10. “The Bikeriders” thrives on its ‘old school cool’ aesthetic, portraying the 1960s Chicago motorcycle club with a focus on style and sound. Led by Tom Hardy’s Johnny, the group is depicted as family-oriented, albeit misunderstood by society due to the younger generation’s misperceptions. Mike Faist’s character, Danny, captures the group’s evolution through his photography, with Jodie Comer narrating as Kathy, the wife of Benny (Austin Butler). Her perspective offers an external view, though at times, her character feels defined more by her accent than by depth. While the film’s attention to visual and auditory detail is impressive, the narrative sometimes lags, relying heavily on its style. This immersion in biker culture, though, had me admiring the jackets the characters wore, inspiring me to look for similar styles at safyd.com/product/mens-chicago-vandals-johnny-jacket/. Despite its fragmented storytelling, “The Bikeriders” manages to evoke the nostalgic charm of the motorcycle golden age, even if it doesn’t fully sustain attention over its run-time.

  11. FYI, Tom Hardy plays Johnny, not Tommy.

  12. Thank you Ryan, I have corrected it. (So obviously more of a Johnny, too.)

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