The Bikeriders (2023)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Jodie Comer, Tom Hardy, Austin Butler, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist
Jeff Nichols has never been shy of doing what he wants as a filmmaker. His filmography has everything from an acclaimed independent darling (Shotgun Stories) to a high-concept existential drama (Take Shelter) and a number of shades in between (Mud, Midnight Special). This time he has made a film about bikers, just because he found a photobook about bikers and thought it was cool. The coolest thing about The Bikeriders is that Jeff Nichols didn’t just recognise the photobook itself as cool, but more so the people pictured inside it.
The Bikeriders is under no illusions that it’s the first film of its kind, and it openly references Easy Rider and other films from the biker canon to affirm that. What it does to differentiate itself from every other biker movie is it dissects what it means to be cool for each of its characters. Tom Hardy stars as Johnny, the leader of the gang at the centre of it all. In one of the film’s highlights, we’re shown that he came up with the idea of starting a motorcycle club while watching Marlon Brando play The Wild One’s Johnny Strabler. He’s besotted with his character – quoting lines just after they’re said and fantasising about what it means to be that kind of person. Clearly, he could have found a worse role model, as he leads the club with respect, honour and fairness.
Austin Butler’s Benny is the stoic outcast with anger issues. He’s something of an understudy to Johnny, and the two share an unbreakable bond founded on mutual admiration. When Benny meets Kathy (Jodie Comer – who deserves praise for her incredible regional accent), he does everything he can to become a permanent fixture in her life. That doesn’t mean showing any emotion though. “Everything he can” amounts to sitting outside of her house on his motorbike until her boyfriend gets so frustrated about it that he moves out. Five weeks later, they’re married.
Throughout the course of the film, we meet a range of characters including new members of the club, members of rival clubs, and aspiring teenagers who’d give anything to become a part of the club. How Johnny and Benny react to these characters is where the heart of the film comes from, but how Kathy tells their stories is just as poignant. She’s somewhat of an outsider to the group, but she has an insight to it that nobody else could lay claim to as Benny’s wife. The Bikeriders benefits from a sense of earnestness in having Kathy as the voice of the story because she’s a character who has no ego in any of this. We get a perspective of each character that makes them feel like entirely real people, and we get to know them so well that we can infer how that perhaps wouldn’t be the case if they were in charge of their own stories.
There are elements of The Bikeriders that call back to films like Goodfellas. The organisation of the bike club, much like the organisation of the gangsters in Goodfellas, is almost fetishised. Everyone who’s a part of it takes confidence from it, everyone who has a connection to it wears it as a badge of honour, and everyone else is either intimidated or enamoured by it. It could be accused of a lack of nuance from that point of view – there are surely more detractors around than just Kathy’s ex-boyfriend. Nonetheless, what it does choose to present is done with such sincerity that it doesn’t really matter.
The Bikeriders isn’t breaking any new ground, but it does approach an often-told story with a relatively fresh approach. We already know what motorcycle clubs are, what they stand for and how they tend to be perceived. What we haven’t experienced quite so readily is the inner workings of what motivates their members to join them. By shining a light on that side of the story, we are given a relatable take on how and why these clubs even existed in the first place. They aren’t that different from the rest of us after all.
Written by Rob Jones