Jeff Nichols’ filmography is still relatively young, but he has already established himself as a director with a distinct style and a knack for creating emotionally resonant stories. Films like Take Shelter, Loving, Midnight Special, and Mud showcase Nichols’ ability to prioritize mood and character over plot, resulting in films that are both tender and electrifying.
With his latest film, The Bikeriders, Nichols steps outside of his comfort zone and delves into a testosterone-fueled counterculture world. Set within the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in the 1960s, the film is inspired by Danny Lyon’s book of the same name, a collection of photographs and anecdotes documenting the club. Nichols recreates the look and feel of these photographs, capturing the freedom and rebellious spirit of the bikers as they ride through Ohio and Kentucky.
The story of The Bikeriders is not driven by a traditional sense of urgency. Instead, it is a collective portrait, a memory piece that traces the rise and eventual downfall of the Vandals motorcycle club. The film begins with a shocking act of violence in a bar, establishing the fringe factor of the characters. Among them is Benny, played by Austin Butler, who embodies a simmering recalcitrance that adds depth to his character.
The film is shaped through the making of Lyon’s book, with Benny’s wife Kathy, played by Jodie Comer, being interviewed by a stand-in for the real-life photographer. Through Kathy’s narration and conversation, the audience gains insight into the inner workings of the Vandals club. Comer’s performance brings a strength and vulnerability to the character, adding unexpected layers to her role.
Unlike other films that focus solely on the male perspective, The Bikeriders centers on Kathy’s story and experiences within the club. Her recollection of her first time at the bar and her subsequent ride on Benny’s bike are infused with both menace and humor. These scenes highlight the camaraderie and sense of belonging that the Vandals provide for their members.
Johnny, played by Tom Hardy, is the founder and president of the Vandals. Unlike many of the other members, he is gainfully employed and has a family. Inspired by Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One, Johnny formed the racing club turned motorcycle club as a means of rebellion and unity. The loyalty and brute strength of the Vandals are showcased in moments like a retaliatory arson where the firefighters simply stand back and let them watch the destruction they’ve caused.
The visual beauty of The Bikeriders pays homage to Lyon’s photographs, with cinematographer Adam Stone expertly capturing the dark shadows and golden light that envelop the characters. Hardy’s performance as Johnny reaches new heights in key moments, such as a nighttime conversation with Benny about succession. The intensity of their exchange is heightened by Stone’s masterful cinematography.
One of the most challenging scenes in the film is a confrontation between Johnny and Kathy. As she confronts him about his refusal to leave the Vandals, their faces are shrouded in darkness and light. Kathy’s fierce determination is palpable as she proclaims her ownership of Johnny, showcasing the complex dynamics of their relationship.
As the Vandals grow in size and influence, their identity begins to shift. New members, scarred by the Vietnam War or simply mean-spirited, bring a level of viciousness that contrasts with the founding members’ code of honor. This change ultimately leads to the downfall of the club, as Kathy witnesses the stark contrast between the camaraderie she once knew and the darkness that has taken over.
The Bikeriders is ultimately a love story, a tribute to a group of outsiders who find solace and belonging in the motorcycle club. Nichols’ direction and the strong performances from the cast create a striking and thought-provoking film that challenges assumptions and easy judgment. With The Bikeriders, Nichols continues to push boundaries and explore new territory, proving that his filmography is constantly evolving and defying expectations.