The Bikeriders

Kathy (Jodie Comer, TV's 'Killing Eve,' "The Last Duel") is uncomfortable when she meets a girlfriend in a Midwestern neighborhood bar populated by local bike club the Vandals, but when she spots Benny (Austin Butler, "Elvis," "Dune: Part Two") playing pool, the guys who’ve been eying her notice. Encouraged to take a ride, Kathy hops on the back of Benny’s Harley and after he keeps vigil outside her house overnight, the two become a couple in “The Bikeriders.”

Laura's Review: C+

Inspired by photojournalist Danny Lyon’s 1968 book, writer/director Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter," "Loving") does an amazing job matching his cast to Lyon’s photos, but the screenplay he’s come up with to tie them all together, while it does illustrate how a bike club became corrupted into a criminal gang, is sloppy with its details and features a hollow lead.  Butler is supposed to represent the push pull between Kathy’s efforts to get out of an increasingly dangerous life and Vandals’ leader Johnny’s (Tom Hardy, "Locke," "Venom") desire to have him succeed him, but while he looks the part, there’s no ‘there’ there – we never know what he’s thinking.        

And it sounds like Nichols doesn’t understand him either, because once Kathy notices him, her girlfriend tells her that no one wants to date him because ‘He cracks up on his bike.  Every time he gets up on his bike he has an accident.’ And yet that never once happens throughout the entire 121 minute running time.  The only trouble Benny gets into on his bike is running out of gas after leading police on a chase throughout town

Benny basically hangs around looking cool, his wooing of Kathy consisting of sitting on his bike across from her house after dropping her off until her current boyfriend drives off in frustration.  The next thing we know, they are married, although romance, not to mention sex, never appears to enter the picture outside of the occasional shared look.

The film is framed by the inspirational book’s author, Danny (Mike Faist, "Challengers"), interviewing Kathy for insight into the Vandals and she dishes on all the members like Cockroach (Emory Cohen, "Brooklyn"), Cal from California (Boyd Holbrook, TV's 'Justified: City Primeval') and Zipco (Michael Shannon, "Take Shelter").  The film is at its best as these actors sketch out mini-portraits and histories of all the different ways these men found belonging in the bike club.  But even here, Nichols’ script falters, Kathy briefly describing some of the women who are de facto members of the club, saying Johnny’s wife is ‘great,’ when the character is never distinguished except for one line asking the man to pick up something at the grocery store as he heads out to a showdown with another biker.

There are two major events which goad Kathy into begging Benny to quit the Vandals.  In the first, he is gravely injured over his refusal to take off his colors, almost losing a foot.  But when younger guys want to join the club only to be rebuffed by Johnny, things begin to spiral out of control.  Vandals franchises are formed in other cities and the young man who didn’t pass Johnny’s test (Toby Wallace) returns to challenge him as a member of the club.  Kathy comes close to being raped.  Benny just ups and leaves.  And everything plays out exactly as one would expect it to, until Nichols’ conclusion, a bait and switch that makes little sense from Danny’s perspective.         

It is frustrating to see a film with so many fine elements fail to come together in a satisfying fashion.  Chad Keith’s (“Take Shelter”) period production is flawless, Cincinnati subbing for Chicago.  Lyon’s pictures were his guide as they were for costume designer Erin Benach who sourced vintage leather and went to great lengths to individualize vests and age fabrics.  Cinematographer Adam Stone (“Take Shelter”) shot using era appropriate 35 mm film and lenses, taking great pains so the audience could experience what riding in a pack on vintage Harleys feels like.  Comer spent months nailing the Chicago accent, her voice only a little higher than the woman she’s portraying (audio tapes were made available to the filmmaker and can be heard on Lyon’s Bleak Beauty website).  Hardy is the essence of a ‘guy’s guy’ whose old world chivalry and code of honor do not resonate with a new generation.  Shannon has a great, melancholy monologue about being rejected by the army and Norman Reedus (TV's 'The Walking Dead') shows up to give an impression of California cool.  But “The Bikeriders” rambles around too much, trying patience, and Austin Butler never achieves the Brando level mystery Benny’s character calls for, leaving the conflict of the film’s triangle a blank.

Focus Features releases "The Bikeriders" in theaters on 6/21/24.