Thursday, July 4, 2024

The Bikeriders: A Review (Review #1825)



I was brought up to be leery of bikers, forever tainted as hooligans and criminals. The Bikeriders, based on a book of photographs, brings us into this world, with strong performances and a well-crafted story.

Essentially narrated by Kathy (Jodie Comer), we learn how she came to be involved with The Vandals, a Chicago-based motorcycle club headed by Johnny (Tom Hardy). Johnny is no bum: he has a job as a truck driver, a wife and two daughters. Yet there is something about Marlon Brando in The Wild One that opens his world. A racing enthusiast, Johnny shifts his friends and associates from a mere racing club to a motorcycle club.

Kathy, who initially is appalled at this world, is drawn in due to Johnny's friend and fellow Vandal, Benny Cross (Austin Butler). While he is smoldering, he also has a gentle side, down to waiting outside Kathy's house all night. Despite herself, she and Benny marry. 

Things appear find within the Vandals, but the organization starts growing too big with new chapters established across the Midwest. Benny, forever loyal to his colors, is almost killed for them. As we go from 1965 to 1973, we see the Vandals devolve from the old guard to the young Turks. Vietnam veterans who join the Vandals are slipping into harder drugs. Older members are attacked by younger ones. Kathy is almost raped. Eventually, one of the next generation Vandals, known as The Kid (Toby Wallace) decides to challenge Johnny for leadership, which under the rules he can. The end result will be the death of what the Vandals were, with lives shattered and the new pushing out the old. Benny and Kathy make it out, but whether they are happier now or then remains unknown.

The Bikeriders moves surprisingly fast without leaving audiences behind. We get an inside look into this subculture, but it also allows for character studies of Johnny, Benny and Kathy. Kathy is our entry into this world through voiceover and on-screen narration through interviews with Danny Lyon (Mike Faist), a photojournalist chronicling the motorcycle club. 

A lot of The Bikeriders' success is due to the three central performances. I know that many were put off by Comer and Hardy's Chicago accents. I think they worked fine and after a while you forget whatever issues you have with them. I found Comer to give one of the best performances of the year. Kathy was a real person: aware that her actions at times were irrational but still standing by her man. The annoyance at some of the Vandals' behavior to the terror of her near assault were all displayed exceptionally well. We end up liking her, even understanding how she came to fall for the leader of the pack, to coin a phrase. 

It is near impossible to not look at Austin Butler and not marvel as his beauty or in Benny's stoic nature. It could have turned into parody: the too cool for school rebel in a leather jacket who can melt women with just an upward glance from his beautiful blue eyes. However, Butler brings a quiet intensity to Benny. He is forever loyal, even when it hurts him be it at the opening or when he nearly loses his foot. As quiet as Benny is, we see the vulnerability beneath the somewhat taciturn manner. The scene when he allows himself to mourn, while quiet, is still moving.

I admit to not being the biggest Tom Hardy fan. Sometimes I find him as an actor someone trying too hard to convince me he is the character. In The Bikeriders, his efforts to sound like someone from Chicago did take away from some of his performance. Still, on the whole I thought he did well as Johnny, who found meaning through the Vandals but who did not see that he could not control the evolution of his creation.

The Bikeriders is filled with small parts which come as a surprise. Both Michael Shannon and Norman Reedus, while not on screen for long, handle their roles well and never feel shoehorned in. My one issue would be with Faist, who is supposed to be the link between our world and the Vandals' world. He is seen interviewing mostly Kathy with one or two instances when he is with the Vandals themselves. I get that this is supposed to be The Bikeriders' author Danny Lyon. Maybe he was there too much. Maybe the permanently dangling cigarette was a sign that he was trying too hard. Somehow, I think the film could have done a little less with him. 

The Bikeriders reminds me in many ways of Goodfellas. There is the voiceover narration, the look into this insular world, the evolution from a fun and an almost innocent appeal to criminality to the tragedy and horror of that criminal world. Even the ending draws inspiration from Goodfellas: ending in a more respectable life only to quietly yearn for what no longer is, or perhaps ever was. The Bikeriders is a portrait of a world so far removed from us, of rebels who have endless rules, of loyalty that goes beyond reason. Well-acted, directed and written by Jeff Nichols, while not perfect, The Bikeriders is a ride worth taking. 

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