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“The Bikeriders” Numbs the Mind

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 20th, 2024

The Bikeriders (Jeff Nichols, 2024) 1½ out of 5 stars

From 1963 to 1967, photojournalist Danny Lyon embedded himself with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, taking pictures of, and recording interviews with, the club (more like a gang) members. In 1968, he published the result of all that hands-on research in a photobook entitled The Bikeriders. Now, 57 years later, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Loving) has made a movie of the same name, inspired by Lyon’s work. Those are the facts, and we’d be better sticking to them.

Because to do otherwise is to dwell on the frequent pointlessness of this fruitless cinematic exercise. Occasionally buoyed by a few fine performances (especially from Jodie Comer, Free Guy), the film also looks terrific, courtesy of cinematographer Adam Stone (2nd Chance). But none of that is enough to elevate what is never more than a glossy treatment of a bygone era with only a superficial quasi-meditation on who was involved and why.

Jodie Comer in THE BIKERIDERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features ©2024 All Rights Reserved.

Far worse: the script is dull. At no point during the almost two-hour runtime did I engage with a single character. Not only is the mystique of thuggish behavior atop a motorcycle lost on me, so is the draw of toxic male bonding. But none of that would matter if the story were structured in way to explain what all this means to the characters in that world. It is not.

Austin Butler (Elvis) stars as Benny, who when we first meet him is knee-deep in violence, since that’s what these folks do: fight. They also drink, smoke, engage in homoerotic rituals that they would be horrified to recognize as such, and treat women as meat. Good times. But since Benny is handsome and has nice hair, he catches the eye of Kathy (Comer), and next thing you know, they’re hitched. Strangely, despite the fact that Kathy tells us via Lyon’s interviews (reenacted here) how much she was attracted to Benny, we never really catch a glimpse of any heat. Benny is a cypher throughout.

Austin Butler in THE BIKERIDERS. Credit: Bryan Schutmaat/Focus Features © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Tom Hardy (Venom) plays Johnny, the founder of the club (known in the movie as “Vandals,” rather “Outlaws”), who despite exhibiting the charisma of a drenched paper napkin somehow commands enough respect that when he says to burn down a bar and maim those who have done a club member wrong, the guys follows his command. Nichols tries to turn Johnny’s growing psychopathy into a discussion of the corrupting influence of power, but there’s not enough depth to the effort. Plus, the recreated interviews that serve as voiceover tells us exactly what is happening, removing any nuance about what Nichols is doing.

Other worthy actors pop up in smaller roles, including Mike Faist (West Side Story), Boyd Holbrook (Vengeance), and Michael Shannon (The Quarry). They each do their own thing, appearing on screen in hermetically sealed sketches, as disassociated the one from the other as we are from the narrative. What remains is a tedious scrabble through the debris of a would-be panegyric for an age when men rode bikes and ignored the rules of society. I’m all for rebellion, but Nichols makes no attempt to examine the root causes of alienation. Instead, there’s just a lot of alcoholism (and, later, drug addiction) and the noxious behavior that goes with it. No thank you.

Michael Shannon in THE BIKERIDERS. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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