Focus Features
“The Bikeriders”

“The Bikeriders,” Little Rock native Jeff Nichols’ sixth feature-length film, opens on Benny (Austin Butler) drinking solo at some generic dive in a scruffy jacket repping the Chicago Vandals motorcycle club. Two men tell him to take the jacket off, Benny says he’d rather die and a fight ensues. It’s a fitting introduction for a film so full of masculine posturing. Get ready for two hours of tough men doing tough things. 

We flashback to several years prior. Kathy (Jodie Comer) meets Benny at a Vandals meeting in a rather shady bar. She’s initially put off by the whole scene, but Benny’s stoic charm proves powerful enough to get her on the back of his motorcycle, and from there, she’s smitten. Then he sits on his bike in front of her house for two days straight until her boyfriend moves out in exasperation, and five weeks later, they get hitched. Thus begins Kathy’s relationship with the Vandals. 

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Through Kathy’s narration, we get a sketch of the club’s various scraggly oddball members (one of which is played by Nichols’ frequent collaborator Michael Shannon) and its Marlon Brando-inspired leader, Johnny (Tom Hardy), who apparently started the club after watching “The Wild One” (1953). 

The Vandals — based on the real-world Chicago Outlaws and their portrayal in Danny Lyon’s 1968 black-and-white photo book of the same name — get bigger and more violent as the idealistic ‘60s give way to the cynical ‘70s. Johnny grooms Benny as his successor and struggles under the weight of having created something he can no longer control. Kathy, meanwhile, becomes increasingly worried for Benny’s safety and begins pressuring him to quit, pushing Benny to choose between her and the gang. 

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Kathy and Johnny make terrific rivals for Benny’s loyalty, and their dueling charismas are perhaps the most enticing part of the film. Benny, on the other hand, never seems particularly jazzed about either option. We never learn very much about him, other than that he’s prone to violence and likes his motorcycle, and guessing at his inner life is one of the movie’s central puzzles. What does the club mean to him? What makes him an outcast on par with the rest of the members? Maybe the club is the only place that would take him. Maybe what disqualifies him from polite society is his very impenetrability. Regardless, his enigmatic cool exercises an undeniable magnetism on the audience as much as it does on the other characters. 

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On paper, “The Bikeriders” sounds like a fairly standard rehashing of American mythology — archetypal outlaws thrown onto the screen to duke it out and fall in love. And, to some degree, it is. It’s got all of the switchblades, fisticuffs, arson and machismo you could ever want. But what makes the film peculiar is how it meanders rather aimlessly between these elements. Despite its trappings, the film is more portrait than epic. It’s not boring by any means; it’s just hard to pin down, a bit opaque. 

Perhaps Nichols is making a point about the idiosyncrasies of history and the complexity that often underlies the origins of myth. Kathy’s narration tends to come out in plot-shaped chunks, shaping events into cause and effect. But what we see on screen tends to be murkier, full of unclear implications. It’s like watching her impose meaning on the past in real-time. 

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Or maybe the point is simply that motorcycles are cool; it’s pretty hard to argue with that. 

“The Bikeriders” opened on June 21. The film, Nichols’ biggest budget production so far, is reported to have grossed around $10 million domestically during its first weekend on screen.

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