Review: ‘The Bikeriders’

Tom Hardy, Austin Butler, And Jodie Comer Are Easy Riders In Jeff Nichols' Sprawling, Sexy Motorcycle Drama

Jeff Nichols has made movies on apocalyptic visions, a historic Supreme Court case on racial injustice, and a boy with superhuman abilities. And yet, it’s The Bikeriders, a 1960s slice of life about an infamous motorcycle club, that is Nichols’ biggest, most compelling, and electric film yet. With dirt in its treads and dust in its wake, The Bikeriders is as much a mobster movie as it is a love story. A power struggle that simmers between a biker club leader and the wife of his fiercest member, between freedom of the open road and a life of domesticity.

The Bikeriders is based on Danny Lyons’ series of documentary photos capturing the biker club culture of the 1960s, concluding in 1973. Tom Hardy stars as Johnny, a husband and truck driver inspired by Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones to start a club for riders like himself. As for what the group stands for, it seems to exist as the living embodiment of Brando’s response to the question of what he’s rebelling against: “What do ya got?” The club is everything and nothing at the same time. They are a place for misfits to find one another, a place for fellow bike enthusiasts, they are occasionally a violent gang and a force for good or evil depending on the whims of its leader. Dubbed the Vandals, they are a club whose leadership structure can be altered with a simple challenge by any of its members, to which Johnny inevitably responds: fists of knives?

English actress and Emmy winner Jodie Comer dons a thick Midwestern accent (mixed with a hint of Carmella Soprano) as Kathy, the candid, plain-spoken biker wife whose blunt recollections to young photojournalist Danny (played by Challengers‘ star Mike Faist) drive the narrative forward. She waxes romantic about the early days of the club, but also how she met and fell in love with Benny (Austin Butler), a true rebel without a cause in the James Dean mold. He has the easy cool, leather jacket, even the haircut to match. Benny is the most natural of all of the Vandals; the one the others aspire to be, and Johnny’s most loyal lieutenant. He whisks Kathy off of her feet, takes her for a ride on his bike, and the lifestyle, the culture, the sheer thrill of it immediately take her in.

Nichols fills the Vandals crew with a slew of recognizable faces playing bikers with colorful names like Zipco (Michael Shannon), Brucie (Damon Herriman), Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Corky (Karl Glusman), Wahoo (Beau Knapp), and Cockroach (Emory Cohen). They look and sound like extras from West Side Story, and carry themselves as such, too. The underlying idea is that most of these guys aren’t really street toughs. They’re regular guys looking for a place to fit in, not to be part of a criminal outfit.

But that becomes a problem as the club grows in size. The late ’60s were a particularly turbulent time in the country, and a new generation wanted to be part of the club. These new members are more violent, pushing Johnny to the edge and threatening his leadership. Others were Vietnam War veterans returning home with PTSD, bringing into the club their own personal demons and an extremism Johnny isn’t equipped to handle alone. He needs someone to take the burden from him. He needs an heir, and Benny is his guy. But Kathy isn’t going to let that happen without a fight.

Sprawling in scope, you feel the impact of decisions made years in the past. When Johnny rejects and humiliates The Kid (Toby Wallace), a young upstart who is willing to do anything to become a Vandal, the repercussions come shockingly back to haunt him. Nichols lays out the story in fits and starts, told through Kathy’s flashbacks. This can get frustrating as the momentum is broken, or a conversation with Danny drags a stretch longer than it needs to. The film clocks in at just under two hours but it feels longer than that.

And yet, Nichols would be doing The Bikeriders a disservice to trim down any of the three magnetic central performances. It feels like a lifetime ago that we’ve seen Tom Hardy in a role that wasn’t him in a Venom suit (his last was 2020’s Capone). He’s commanding and powerful here as Johnny, bringing real capo dei capi energy to the role and rocking the most believable Midwestern accent of the bunch.

Comer, sporting a variety of wigs as brazen as her Midwestern twang, slowly settles into the role of Kathy. Initially, it’s unclear whether she’d be able to nail it but Comer is a pro and grows into it over time. By the end of the movie, Kathy is essentially our eyes and ears, delivering a perspective from inside the club and outside of it, watching it evolve into something unrecognizable.

And of course, there’s Butler. While in some respects he’s doing his version of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, it’s undeniable his enormous presence and smoldering charisma. Benny is probably the least developed character of the bunch, though, and becomes less interesting as the movie motors along and the emphasis shifts to Kathy and Johnny.

Motorcycle clubs are experiencing a boom right now, with groups popping up that represent a diversity of ethnicities and cultures. The Bikeriders feels timely and relevant, a sexy period piece about crime and brotherhood and the independent spirit that will roar like the engine of a Harley Davidson for years to come.

Focus Features opens The Bikeriders in theaters on June 21st.

The Bikeriders
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
bikeriders-54007Jeff Nichols has made movies on apocalyptic visions, a historic Supreme Court case on racial injustice, and a boy with superhuman abilities. And yet, it's The Bikeriders, a 1960s slice of life about an infamous motorcycle club, that is Nichols' biggest, most compelling, and...