Review of “The Bikeriders”: Jodie Comer steals the spotlight in an otherwise uneven Jeff Nichols film.

Tom Hardy and Austin Butler portray two mysterious individuals in a motorcycle club.

“You can pour your heart and soul into something, but ultimately, it will follow its own course.” This line, spoken by Tom Hardy’s character Johnny in The Bikeriders, aptly mirrors the unpredictability of filmmaking—where even intense directorial dedication, standout performances, and striking cinematography may not always guarantee a cohesive outcome.

In Jeff Nichols’ latest film, The Bikeriders, which is set in the 1960s, the director explores the narrative of a Midwestern motorcycle gang’s rise and fall. Johnny (played by Tom Hardy), a truck driver and family man, is inspired to establish a motorcycle club after being influenced by Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One. The club, known as the Vandals, attracts a diverse array of individuals, including the constantly intoxicated Zipco (portrayed by Jeff Nichols’ frequent collaborator Michael Shannon), the skilled chop shop operator Cal (played by Boyd Holbrook), and the rebellious Benny (Austin Butler). However, as their influence grows and garners the attention of a new generation, it spirals into a realm beyond Johnny’s control.

The narrative of The Bikeriders is structured around interviews, with Danny (portrayed by Mike Faist from West Side Story) capturing photographs and interviewing Kathy (played by Jodie Comer), Benny’s enduring wife. However, the film fails to fully utilize the considerable talents of Mike Faist in this role.

There are many admirable aspects to The Bikeriders, a film that seems to draw more inspiration from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than from The Wild One or Easy Rider. In Nichols’ rendition, outlaws are substituted with bikers, yet they remain individuals grappling with identity and a notion of masculinity that is rapidly evolving.

The diverse range of accents adopted by the actors could easily fill a checkout line in a Midwestern grocery store, yet every performance in The Bikeriders is commendable for its boldness. Nichols has curated a remarkable ensemble, and they authentically bring to life the antics and volatile nature of their characters. Tom Hardy, with his imposing stature and boxer-like demeanor, convincingly embodies the gang leader persona, albeit juxtaposed with a high-pitched, almost effeminate vocal tone that echoes Brando’s style. This contradiction encapsulates Johnny’s unpredictability and vulnerability to those who aim to undermine the original ethos of his club.

If anyone still questioned Austin Butler’s status as a bona fide movie star following last year’s portrayal of Elvis, his performance in The Bikeriders should put those doubts to rest. While Benny’s character doesn’t offer much depth beyond his love for the thrill of riding, Butler infuses him with a volatile, unpredictable energy that constantly threatens to derail the Vandals’ endeavors. Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone prioritize showcasing Benny rather than delving deep into his psyche, allowing audiences to relish in every smirking smile, every suggestive pose, and every casually held cigarette that dangles from his lips.

Jodie Comer, an Emmy and Tony winner, effortlessly steals the spotlight in the film. Portraying Kathy, she embodies a character characterized by distinct speech patterns and sharp sarcasm. Right from her encounter with Benny, she sees through him, yet still finds herself drawn to him. Comer imbues Kathy with a sense of internal frustration, as if she’s constantly questioning her own judgment for loving Benny so deeply. However, she’s also depicted as a formidable presence, unafraid to confront anyone who challenges her claim on Benny. While Comer may have initially gained fame for portraying strong English characters, here she skillfully adopts a Midwestern tenacity, blending kindness with an unwavering determination. While Johnny may hold the title of gang leader, in Comer’s portrayal, Kathy emerges as the true authority figure.

The film’s imagery carries a sense of romanticism; Adam Stone’s camera follows the leather-clad riders with what can only be described as affectionate objectification. The cinematography fetishizes not only the bikes themselves but also the riders’ longing for a sense of belonging, mirroring the characters’ desires. At times, this visual treatment verges on homoeroticism, particularly evident in the interactions between Hardy and Butler’s characters. Are the Vandals primarily about finding camaraderie, or is the club also a vessel for these men to express their profound affection for one another? It seems likely that both elements are at play. Notably, Kathy is depicted as a rival to Johnny’s affection for Benny. If only Nichols had delved deeper into this aspect. Nevertheless, The Bikeriders remains a somewhat disjointed affair—a collection of intriguing characters and captivating imagery that never quite coalesces into a cohesive whole.

During the premiere of the film at the Telluride Film Festival, Nichols shared his inspiration for the project, revealing that a book of photographs featuring a 1960s motorcycle gang, taken by Danny Lyon (whom Nichols portrays in the film), sparked the idea. He expressed his desire to capture the same essence and feeling that he experienced when viewing the photos, aiming to translate that into the film for the audience to feel the same connection.

The photographs capture the precise essence of time and place, evoking a poignant sense of misfits yearning for connection and purpose. However, while the images excel in conveying mood and atmosphere, they inherently lack the narrative structure of a film. In this regard, Nichols achieved his objective; The Bikeriders mirrors the meandering quality of the photographs, offering viewers ample opportunity to roam the open road of its narrative without a fixed destination.

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