Don’t let the word “bike” fool you. In Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders,” the wheels in question are choppers — good, all-American motorcycles, built from the ground up by tough guys in leather jackets — and the “club” they’re a part of is really more of a gang. Nichols hails from the Heartland (from Little Rock, Ark., to be precise) and has a better handle on the life and attitudes one finds in so-called flyover country than nearly all the directors working at his level. You’ve probably seen a few of his films, most of which take place down dirt roads in rural areas. Movies like “Shotgun Stories,” “Loving” and “Mud.”
With “The Bikeriders,” Nichols brings us into the big city — or the outskirts, at least — and then zeroes in on a social microcosm all of us recognize, but few have penetrated: a Chicago-area motorcycle club that calls itself the Vandals. The Vandals don’t really exist, but both the group and a number of its members — guys like Johnny (Tom Hardy), Benny (Austin Butler), Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Zipco (Michael Shannon) and Cockroach (Emory Cohen), who eats bugs — were directly inspired by Danny Lyon’s 1968 photo collection “The Bikeriders,” a thin book of fewer than 100 pages whose iconic black-and-white images serve as the raw material for Nichols’ full-color imagination.
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The men in Lyon’s book look tough, but not intimidating. They welcomed the photographer into their ranks, then let their guard down, which is the same feeling Nichols achieves here. He starts on the outside, with a woman named Kathy (Jodie Comer, sporting a thick Midwestern accent), which is like diving into “Goodfellas” with Lorraine Bracco’s character. Scorsese is obviously a major reference point for Nichols on this movie, especially when it comes to the needle drops. There’s Cream, of course, but most of the music cues are deeper cuts (though nothing is more vital to the soundtrack than the growl of those engines).
He also includes Lyon as a character, casting “West Side Story” breakout (and Broadway darling) Mike Faist as the young photographer, seen either snapping away or sticking a microphone in his subjects’ faces. In the book, Kathy’s interview appears under the header “Squirrely Lady.” She explains that she married Benny when he was just 19. She’d already been divorced once and had a boyfriend when she met him.
That scene — the one where she walks into a biker bar wearing white pants and comes out covered in handprints, then spends the night on the back of Benny’s motorcycle — is hot enough to melt the ice off a Chicago windscreen in winter and sets the tone for all that follows. A born movie star, Butler is still in Elvis mode, to a degree, with bare arms, tattoos and tousled blond hair. The less he says, the more she falls for the guy. “Five weeks later, I married him,” Kathy says. Half the audience will be ready to walk down the aisle at that point too.
Nichols introduces the majority of his ensemble in that first bar scene, the most important being club founder — and leader of the pack — Johnny. Hardy looks the part, giving us two Marlon Brando performances for the price of one: There’s the rebel biker of “The Wild One,” but also a fair amount of “The Godfather” in the silent, Solomonic way he deals with problems and challenges to his authority (and also in the Coppola-esque depiction of an organization with no respect for straight society’s ideas of law and order). The surprise here is how Johnny sounds: slightly high-pitched and nasal, like Squiggy in “Laverne and Shirley.” Still, there’s no question that this is one of Hardy’s great roles, and as Hell’s Angels-style characters go, this one more than compensates for his being muzzled and strapped to the front of a gnarly Ford Coupe for half of “Fury Road.”
George Miller, the mastermind behind “Mad Max,” has done more than any other director to establish the biker look on film, though Nichols makes an important contribution here, setting the clock back to before whatever apocalypse defined that style. The guys here wear matching jackets, with their “colors” — a big black patch, sporting a skull and daggers — ironed onto the back. “You’ll have to kill me to get this jacket off me,” Benny spits in the opening scene, when two guys make it clear they don’t want bikers hanging out in their bar. The ensuing fight is just one example of the Vandals’ capacity to turn violent at a moment’s notice, and Nichols’ willingness to show it could make this too intense for some audiences, especially those who identify more with Kathy’s character than the ready-to-brawl men.
Best known as the ruthless assassin she plays in “Killing Eve,” Comer could hardly have found a more different role than this to display her range. Seen primarily on her porch — looking like one of those disheveled sisters in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” while sounding more like Frances McDormand in “Fargo” — Kathy and the seemingly hopeless marriage she’s gotten herself into serve as the beating heart and backbone for “The Bikeriders,” which traces the Vandals’ evolution from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, after which the gang took a turn for the worse.
Once the club starts to expand and let in younger members — kids without discipline (like Toby Wallace’s character) — or junkies and veterans mixed up by their experience in Vietnam, the sense of camaraderie that defines the movie takes a turn into much darker territory. We see someone shooting up at a party, and while Benny’s otherwise distracted, some guys grab Kathy and try to drag her upstairs. Later, in a very Scorsese moment, rumors that the Vandals turned to criminal activity are accompanied by shots of them smuggling drugs across the border and executing rivals under a bridge. The film’s (anti)climax takes place at a knife fight.
While it could be accused of romanticizing some pretty damaged characters (the real-life Benny abused his wife), “The Bikeriders” doesn’t pretend that motorcycle gangs can’t be dangerous. Still, it goes a long way to humanize figures who’ve been long misrepresented on film, while giving audiences privileged access to this inner world. Kathy, like Karen in “Goodfellas” or Kay in “The Godfather,” has entered into a marriage where it’s understood that she comes second to her husband’s true loves, which in this case are his bike and his buddies. While not quite homoerotic, the bond between Benny and Johnny is stronger than family.
When one of its ranks dies, the entire gang shows up for the funeral — an image taken directly from Lyon’s book, in which Kathy quotes devil-may-care Benny as saying, “When you die you’re better off than when you’re living.” Like modern-day cowboys, these guys dream of dying in the saddle, and your heart breaks a little for Kathy, knowing how foolish she is to think that she could ever tame a mustang as wild as Benny. Nichols includes Lyon’s photos over the end credits, but the best image of the movie is the one that immediately precedes it, an ending so perfect, no one could see it coming.
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