The Bikeriders Review: A Road Movie Through the Pit Stops of Life

Excellent cast leads a fine slice of Americana

Is there any better metaphor for a changing American than the open road? In the years between The Wild One (1953) and Easy Rider (1969), photographer Danny Lyon spent some time with a gang of bikeriders, capturing rebels and renegades who burned rubber in search of freedom. His experiences, and those of the riders, offer the subject of his seminal photobook The Bikeriders. Published in 1968, the photography captures a supposed “golden age” of motorcycle gangs. These were the days of cheap gas, fresh pavement, and a country in the midst of a cultural revolution.

The bikes—roaring feats of hell on two wheels—endure as symbols for America in a time of rebellion. Guys feeling the need for speed, or that rush of adrenaline after the war, could hit the road with other riders. They could get the motor going and let ordinary life eat their dust.

Lyon’s photos, moreover, are snapshots of the days when biker gangs were more synonymous with “clubs” than with gangs of the Hell’s Angels variety. These were bikers bound by a shared sense of rebellion and honour. They’re as much “family” as are the drivers of the Fast and the Furious movies. But fret not—The Bikeriders rides with premium gas.

The Bikeriders, the film, dramatizes the violently changing times of the bikers who inspired Lyons’ photos. Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Loving) recaptures this era of Americana with an eye that’s neither romantic nor nostalgic. The film loosely draws inspiration from Lyon’s book and finds as its starting point a passing reference to a biker being challenged for the leadership of the gang. Nichols creates a world that has a dark edge, more gunmetal than sepia-toned as it looks back to the story behind Lyon’s portraits.

The Vandals, renamed from the Outlaws of Lyon’s book, serve as the fictionalised biker gang. These guys are mostly easy riders and gentle giants, but they often find themselves in a violent state. The Bikeriders makes this violence clear from the outset, as it opens with a visceral punch to the face. Benny (Austin Butler) takes a beating for wearing his colours in the wrong bar. As his wife, Kathy (Jodie Comer) later relates to Lyon (Mike Faist) the story of how they first met, one can assume that Benny met an inevitable end.

Kathy’s yarn takes The Bikeriders back in time. It might only wind the clock back a few years, but it feels like a different era when the straight-laced Kathy goes to meet a girlfriend at the local biker bar. Comer, who masterfully inhabits Kathy’s squareness amid a barrage of boors and ruffians, offers a take on the Vandals that many outsiders might share. They don’t seem like Kathy’s guys. One by one, they hit on her and/or slap her butt, but she only has eyes for Benny. But sizing up the rugged all-American boy, who her friend advises is a terrible biker and prone to accidents, Kathy gets a little taste for danger.

A departed boyfriend here and a wild ride there, and Kathy soon rides in the saddle with Benny. He introduces her to his chosen family of ride-or-die Vandals. Among the bikers is the gang’s leader, Johnny (Tom Hardy), whose voice and mannerisms seem appropriately ripped from Marlon Brando. Other bikers like veteran Cal (Boyd Holbrook) form the heart of the group. Riders like Zipco (Michael Shannon), Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), and Cockroach (Emory Cohen) add distinct flavours. They’re an acquired taste, but Kathy quickly makes this family her own—and becomes something of a house-mother to keep them shipshape.

As the years go by and Lyons interviews Kathy again, his photographs capture a gang that doesn’t change at the speed of the world around them. These guys nurse their beers, knock back some shots, and run red lights without care. But Kathy observes a growing restlessness around them. Young guns want in and they challenge Johnny’s authority. Family picnics turn into bare-knuckle brawls. When people want out, they get popped.

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Where Lyon’s lens perfectly captures the hardness and the humanity of the bikers, the actors in Nichols’ film do so with equal measure. Comer gives an extraordinary performance. The Killing Eve and Last Duel star embodies Kathy with respectable authority amid so many macho men. As the film cuts back and forth between timelines, Comer develops an edge for Kathy. It’s neither hardness nor coldness, but rather a survivalist reflection of the Vandals’ lifestyle. She toughens up, but in her interviews with Faist, who’s having a very strong year after Challengers, Comer illustrates that the biker lifestyle doesn’t consume a person. Kathy seems wiser thanks to the streets smarts and instincts that life with the Vandals instilled within her.

Meanwhile, The Bikeriders finds a formidable pair of duelling Brandos in Hardy and Butler. Hardy, donning yet another mumbly accent, evokes the iconic Wild One who inspires Johnny to corral the gang. But the subtlety of performance here evokes a passing of the torch that Johnny himself resists. As Hardy shares his scenes with Butler, the younger actor’s quiet magnetism inspires the same excitement that Hardy gave in his brooding breakthrough work.

Butler more than delivers on the promise of his captivating turn as Elvis. He injects the right suave swagger into his greased-up biker boy and proves he’s a star to stay. But the introspective nature of his performance creates a rider who’s smart enough to recognize the Vandals’ fatalist façade. Memorable turns across the ensemble also make the Vandals an appropriate cohesive group. The mere presence of an outsider shakes up the energy on screen.

The cinematography by Adam Stone appropriately harnesses the hardened steeliness of the era. Handsomely rugged and classically composed, the film observes the bikers’ detachment in a self-contained world. The film quietly takes audiences on a road movie that spends relatively little time gliding down the road itself. Nichols favours run-down and working class corners of the city where wall paper peels and trash sits in piles. Dive bars, house parties, and parking lots offer rest stops in the drama of life.

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Aside from Benny, however, The Bikeriders sees few of the Vandals actually mount a bike and rev the engine. These guys are generally barflies, beat down by post-war life and drowning their sorrows in their collective inability to put the motor into forward motion, so to speak. They go at their own pace, but Nichols quietly observes a life that catches up with them quicker than they expect.

The Bikeriders opens in theatres on June 21.



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