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The Bikeriders review: a breezy, effortlessly cool motorcycle movie

Austin Butler drives alongside a motorcycle gang in The Bikeriders.
The Bikeriders
“Jeff Nichols' The Bikeriders is an assured, fun, and supremely cool cinematic slice of 1960s American life.”
  • An immensely likable cast
  • Stylish, confident direction
  • A playful, loose structure
  • A second act that occasionally drags
  • Several moments of tonal unevenness

The Bikeriders is a film of free-wheeling style and rigid formalism, loud voices and muted emotions, lighthearted comedy and straight-faced tragedy. It’s not the best movie writer-director Jeff Nichols has made, but there are moments, particularly throughout its exuberant, wind-in-your-hair first half, when it will make you wonder if it just might be. It’s unwieldy, rough around the edges, and ultimately amounts to only a little more than the sum of its many impressive parts. At the same time, there is a sense of life rippling throughout The Bikeriders that keeps it light, buoyant, and constantly engaging.

Like so many of Nichols’ movies, it’s a decidedly human drama about the unforgiving nature of time and of trying desperately to hold onto the present in fear of the future. Inspired by a 1968 photo book of the same name by Danny Lyon, it’s a collection of indelible images and individual moments: a couple’s first nighttime motorcycle ride, a memorable joke told around a campfire. Inevitably, certain sections prove more compelling than others, but The Bikeriders succeeds in making you feel the joy and love its characters do when they rest their heads on their partner’s shoulders or drive side-by-side down a country highway. It does that so effectively that you, in turn, feel the same anxiety as the film’s characters when the moments of connection they treasure so deeply begin to slip through their hands.

Jodie Comer stands next to Austin Butler in The Bikeriders.
Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

Set in and around Chicago in the 1960s, The Bikeriders charts the rise of the Vandals MC, a motorcycle club founded by Johnny (Tom Hardy), a bike-obsessed suburban husband and father with dreams of being James Cagney or Marlon Brando. We’re introduced to Johnny and his fellow Vandals by Kathy (Jodie Comer), a spirited outsider whose opening narration reveals how she ended up as the wife of Johnny’s right-hand man, Benny (Austin Butler), a stubborn rebel whose handsome blankness practically invites others to project their own desires and ideas onto him. Butler, coming off his recent star turns in Elvis and Dune: Part Two, isn’t given much depth to explore in The Bikeriders, but that’s all right. His performance is one of stillness and sheer presence, and the work he does throughout the film forms as convincing a case for his future as a Hollywood movie star as anything else he’s done.

Following its initial, lightly comedic and romantic introduction of Comer and Butler’s lovestruck characters, The Bikeriders quickly expands its focus. The film’s first half jumps around in time and place — offering insights into the other members of the Vandals through vignettes that are as beautifully photographed by cinematographer Adam Stone as they are succinctly put together by editor Julie Monroe. The film’s brief asides establish the shared sense of camaraderie that keeps the Vandals together and give all of its cast members, including welcome supporting figures like Damon Herriman, Boyd Holbrook, and frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon, equal chances to shine in the spotlight.

For most of its first hour, The Bikeriders functions less as a traditional narrative film and more like a loose but loving portrait of its central club. It’s in this section that Nichols is the most playful he’s ever been as a filmmaker — finding the time to pack in obvious references to films like Goodfellas alongside his own, assured stylistic touches and moments of surprising narrative experimentation. After taking an eight-year break between films, Nichols has returned with a slice of life dramedy that spends much of its 116 minute runtime actively resisting the reserved style of his previous directorial efforts. As the movie’s motorcycle club inches toward an untenable size and its lawless ways begin to take increasingly darker turns, though, The Bikeriders does gradually slip into a more straightforward rhythm and mode of storytelling that feels in line with Nichols’ past work.

Tom Hardy sits with Austin Butler in The Bikeriders.
Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

The film’s stylistic shift is reflected in its tone, which grows somber and more melancholic the harder it becomes for Hardy’s Johnny to run his once-modest motorcycle club. This transition isn’t particularly seamless, but it isn’t so jarring as to be disorienting, either. The darkness of The Bikeriders‘ second half feels, at first, incongruous with the goofiness of its first, which itself made the movie’s more outsized performances — namely, Comer’s supremely charismatic turn as Kathy and Hardy’s endearingly bumbling take on Johnny — feel perfectly tuned to its almost cartoonish sense of fun and romance. It, consequently, takes time for The Bikeriders to convince you that the larger-than-life elements of its first two acts can coexist with the elegiac mood of its final third.

While the film’s collage-esque approach to telling its story allows it to maintain a brisk, jovial pace for its first hour as well, the shorthand way in which Nichols introduces and develops many of its supporting characters renders a number of The Bikeriders‘ darkest moments surprisingly weightless. These flaws, fortunately, don’t cause The Bikeriders to crash and burn. The film is far too confident in its own story and characters to succumb to a fate like that, and the performances given by its likable cast are enough to keep it moving along, even in the rare instances when its narrative momentum seems dangerously close to stalling out.

Austin Butler sits on a motorcycle at night in The Bikeriders.
Focus Features

Early in The Bikeriders, there’s an extended, completely standalone sequence in which Butler’s Benny speeds through the streets of a small Illinois town. Before long, he’s earned the attention of an entire squad of police cars intent on chasing him down. Rather than trying to outrun them, Benny keeps cruising forward in a straight line — staying just far enough ahead of his pursuers to remain out of their grasp and close enough to keep them on his tail. It’s a brazen, reckless attempt to hold onto a high that’s unsustainable — and the scene itself is one of the most confidently made and quietly moving of Nichols’ career.

Nothing lasts forever, of course. Eventually, Benny’s bike runs out of gas, the same way the Vandals grows too big for Johnny to single-handedly control. You can’t keep violence contained, it turns out, just like how you can’t smother a fire and keep it lit at the same time. Every high-speed chase has to end and, sooner or later, the next song has to play. The Bikeriders knows all of this, and it’s a credit to the strength of the film’s romantic spirit that it doesn’t let the impermanence of its characters’ situations lead it toward a dead end of hopelessness. Every bike ride may have to end at some point, but if you find a way to start again, you may still be able to hear the distant roar of the past floating in on the wind from time to time — like a song you’ve forgotten the words to but still remember well enough to hum along.

The Bikeriders is now playing in theaters.

Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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