Thursday, July 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘The Bikeriders’ Accelerates Towards Greatness


Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy

Synopsis: After a chance encounter, headstrong Kathy is drawn to Benny, member of Midwestern motorcycle club the Vandals. As the club transforms into a dangerous underworld of violence, Benny must choose between Kathy and his loyalty to the club.


The more perceived control you have, the larger your reach, the more it falls through your grasp. The expansion of power and control is a surefire way to tempt fate and lose who you are. When we look back at how our plans, relationships, or connections begin, that is when they could be held, even if for just one beautiful moment. Will events happen no matter what we do? Maybe, but it is hard not to think about the moments that our paths diverge into unnecessary complexity. The characters in Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders travels many of those divergent paths and they find it impossible not to regret and look backwards, a deep incongruence with the consistent imagery of the motorcycles burning up the road, moving forward as quickly as possible, towards expectant freedom.

Although it is a story of power and ostensibly focused on The Vandals Motorcycle Club, that is a complete misdirect. That path, while interesting, is clearly secondary to the relationships of its three main characters. The impetus of the story is set in motion when Kathy (Jodie Comer) chooses to meets her friend at a biker bar to give her some money. There she meets a ragtag cast of characters, most importantly her future husband, Benny (Austin Butler) and the President of the club, Johnny (Tom Hardy). It is no coincidence that she meets them both back-to-back, as this trio will be on a collision course throughout.

The only struggles the film has are in its beginnings, as it struggles slightly to find its footing and pace. There is a bit too much narration from Kathy, especially given that we see just about everything that she details almost immediately afterwards. The script, also from Nichols, could do with slightly more trust in the audience. But these are minor complaints. Overall, the film is excellent, not just due to the actors, but also to the big screen worthy sound and visuals. Of particular note, the sound design truly harnesses the power of the motorcycles and hammers home the intimidation factor of the club. 

Importantly, the three of the lead performances are stunning, and all in different ways. Hardy continues to be at the top of his game, especially in the space between lines of dialogue. His use of silence, facial expressions, and head movement to change the perspective of powerful moments puts him in a league of his own. Comer is the steadying force in this film, a challenge she more than meets, along with keeping a difficult accent with copious amounts of speech. And Austin Butler. I wasn’t convinced of his movie stardom quite yet, but count me in now. It is not just his introduction, which is a masterclass in gazing at a leading man from cinematographer Adam Stone. The forced lack of emotion in Butler is deeply important to the narrative structure and the character arcs of The Bikeriders, and he never wavers.

Yes, on the surface, it still is the story of the rise of a motorcycle club, but where the film shines is in the longing of both Kathy and Johnny for the love of Benny. They both have it, but only partially. Benny is distant and unknowable. Kathy has him as a husband, but he is a spouse that is never fully present. At the slightest provocation, he will threaten to leave, clearly unable to communicate beyond emotional explosions. Johnny, if anything, has a more intimate relationship with him, but this merely increases Benny’s fear of closeness. Their intimacy is often filmed in shadow, with faces half obscured, almost seeing these two men as one whole. Hardy and Butler are perfectly incomplete, and, in another time, might be able to truly connect. But in the hypermasculine world of both the time period and the context of a motorcycle club, we all know it is impossible, despite our deepest romantic hopes. Their relationship is equal parts genuine and deeply frustrating. The film contains both a deep sorrow and a desire for hope that is a difficult balance, but is purely human. All of these characters are, in one way or another, misfits. The Bikeriders manages to portray even disturbing men as real people, with hopes and dreams. Michael Shannon, in a small but memorable part, has a speech about his past that passes a hush over the constant noise of the carousing men that is awe inspiring to watch.

The Bikeriders is about many things and can be interpreted in several ways. Jeff Nichols clearly has a deep understanding of impossible relationships and the good enough endings, even if they lack true intimacy and passion. “Things are good” becomes a near indictment of settling for what Benny can give.  If you’re looking for enlightenment about the history of motorcycle clubs, this will deeply disappoint. But if you search for painfully close relationships that make us look back, both wistfully and with deep regret, The Bikeriders, thanks to three impeccable performances, will fulfill exactly what you are looking for, all while breaking our hearts.

Grade: A-

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