Director: Jeff Nichols
Writers: Jeff Nichols (screenplay), Danny Lyons (book)
Cast: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon
Producers: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Arnon Milchan
Music: David Wingo
Cinematographer: Adam Stone
Editor: Julie Monroe
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 116mins
What’s the story: 1960s, the American Midwest. Kathy (Comer) recounts her experiences as the wife of a member of the legendary Vandals biker gang.
What’s the verdict: The American biker. Cowboy and gangster rolled into one surly, Brylcreemed, impossibly cool figure of “Like-I-give-a-fuck”-ness. The wild one. The easy rider. The knightrider. The loveless. The son of anarchy. Erm, The Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man…
Problem is, for all those iconic shots of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding their steel hogs against the epic backdrop of the American West, for those who don’t get the romanticism of the biker there’s not a whole lot to hold the interest. Or to paraphrase the Easy Rider tagline: The audience went looking for a story. And couldn’t find one anywhere.
The Bikeriders skids into the trap of most biker films. Namely, that the actors seem to be having a far better time riding their bikes than the paying audience watching them. Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols loosely bases his film on the 1968 book of the same name, Danny Lyon’s photographic account of four years shooting and interviewing the Vandals and their spouses.
Nichols’ film betrays its origins: it looks pretty, but it’s image over substance. The writer-director attempts to add Goodfellas pizzaz to a small story of “undesirable characters” who rallied together to form their own society. Meaning we have a jukebox soundtrack, sporadic violence, and Jodie Comer (flawless accent and all) as Kathy, giving good voiceover narration to inject interest into one-note characters.
Characters including Tom Hardy’s Johnny, leader of the Vandals, Boyd Holbrook’s Cal, and Austin Butler’s Benny. Particularly Benny, whom she falls hard for when he sets up a vigil outside her house, chasing away her exasperated boyfriend and marrying her.
But where Goodfellas explored the mentality of its characters and their world outside the norm, The Bikeriders is content just gazing at these guys posturing. No psychological probing into why they have rejected society and established a new one with rules that still must be heeded. Neither is the film bothered to explore the attraction of these men (who are essentially overgrown boys ruining everyone else’s day) to their wives and girlfriends, beyond the fact they might look like Austin Butler or Tom Hardy.
Something also smells disingenuous about the movie. For all their rough and tumbling, these guys only turn mean violent when honour is at stake. Otherwise, we see them commit no crime, no assault, utter not one racist or homophobic slur. They’re more altar boys than Altamont, these lads. By ignoring their impact on society, The Bikeriders again falls short of the Scorsese crime films it’s mimicking. All seemingly so Nichols can tell the standard arc of good times coming to an end, with bad players and bad drugs spoiling everything in the 1970s.
Which leaves the performances. And this is where The Bikeriders works, so hats off to casting director Francine Maisler. Watching Hardy mumble along to Brando’s Wild One is good fun, and Butler is allowed to channel that smouldering Elvis intensity. Nichols regular Michael Shannon pops up as a lumbering hulk sore because he wasn’t chosen for Vietnam. But, Comer is the star of the show, so could Hollywood give her a decent film role? She is charismatic and heartbreaking and puts much-needed gas in the film’s tank. It would be a duller movie without her.
But next time everyone, take the bus.