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The Bikeriders review – potent ode to the violent lives of 60s biker gangs

Jeff Nichols’s motorcycle movie is about a love triangle and a succession crisis – inspired by the immersive 1968 study of Chicago bikers by photojournalist Danny Lyon, whose black-and-white pictures flash up with the closing credits. This film opens up the storytelling throttle with a throaty growl, delivering the doomy romance of an old-fashioned western and the thrills of a mob drama.

The Bikeriders is set in a world in which the increasingly careworn gang leader competes for the affection of his toughest follower with this man’s girlfriend, while at the same time grooming him as his heir. Yet this is a group where the biker king – whatever his plans for a dauphin – can be challenged for the crown by any subordinate according to the rules of his own violence-democracy, the incumbent gruffly asking: fists or knives?

Tom Hardy is Johnny, truck-driver, family man and founding head honcho of the 60s Chicago motorbike club, The Vandals, inspired to form his gang after the ecstatic epiphany of watching Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones on TV; the film’s whole approach in laying out Johnny’s life circumstances is to imagine an answer to Brando’s famous reply to being asked what he’s rebelling against: what do you got?

His leather-clad guys and blacktop battlers have monikers like something from West Side Story: bleary draft-reject Zipco (Michael Shannon); beefy Cockroach (Emory Cohen); loyal lieutenant Brucie (Damon Herriman); California recruit Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus) and dependable footsoldiers Corky (Karl Glusman) and Wahoo (Beau Knapp).

But the toughest, sexiest and most smoulderingly badass of the whole lot is Benny, played by Austin Butler, the only one of the Vandals who directly takes on the law and whose violent altercation with civilian locals results in a gruesome injury which Johnny will have to avenge – leading to his gang’s mutation into a quasi-crime mob, attracting starstruck wannabe joiners from all over the country, including Vietnam vets with serious drug habits, making the burden of leadership all but intolerable.

But Benny is deeply in love with Kathy, played by Jodie Comer with tough pugnacity and an outrageous northwestern accent with which you could slice a chrome tailpipe in two. She is effectively the narrator, speaking to Danny Lyon himself, played by Mike Faust. Like Lorraine Bracco’s Karen in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Kathy is a respectable working-class woman who never intended to get drawn into this world, but found Benny very attractive just as he was beguiled by her cool, sceptical confidence. It is Kathy who can see the ritual absurdity of the Vandals’ codes of masculinity – how, having affected to despise rules, they set up a club with a huge amount of rules, followed with pedantic solemnity like a cross between the army and the Rotary club. She can see how her Benny is going to die one day in the service of this crazy group, and so a duel for possession begins between her and Johnny.

Unlike the heroes of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider – a film which is to provide employment for one of the group – the bikeriders have no end or quest in view. They just drift around, assemble for “picnics” in green spaces they churn into mud during races and get into fights with other gangs with whom they later cordially have beers. A lot of their time is spent almost catatonically hanging out at a bar in which there is a big discussion about the costs involved in installing a phone behind the bar which their membership subs would entitle them to use on club business.

The Bikeriders is in its way like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless (1981) in depicting the grain of their empty world, while stopping short of showing us their places of employment. What we’re watching is a weekend existence, like that of army reservists: we don’t get to see Johnny’s work as a truck driver – although on his way out of the house for a rumble, he tells his wife he’ll pick up some eggs on the way home. As for Benny’s life, it appears to be Kathy paying the bills and putting the roof over his head – although there is no question of Benny feeling emasculated, other than when she has to look after him after an injury.

The biker’s way of life is not precisely ironised or satirised, and the film incidentally doesn’t question its heterosexuality (gay biker images which were to become an underground US pop culture staple do not feature). Johnny and Benny’s relationship is more father and son. The performances here aren’t subtle exactly: with Comer’s fierce twang, Butler’s soft purr and Hardy’s sibilant Brandoesque drawl. But there’s such enormous potency and impact in everything they do onscreen.