Now that Martin Scorsese is busying himself with historical epics – his latest, Killers of the Flower Moon, plays the London Film Festival this coming weekend – it’s cheering to see a talented younger filmmaker moving in on his old turf.
Jeff Nichols, whose two impressive 2016 features, Loving and Midnight Special, were followed by a seven-year silence, has come roaring back onto the scene with The Bikeriders, which had its own UK premiere at the capital’s Royal Festival Hall tonight.
Nichols’ film delivers a grubbily glamorous blast of underworld machismo of the sort that Scorsese himself made a mid-career speciality: think wildly charismatic performances, elegant camerawork, regular jabs of barbarous violence, and a skin-fizzingly sharp jukebox soundtrack.
Nichols spun his script out of a volume of images taken by the American photographer Danny Lyon in the 1960s, which chronicled the lives of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club: a gaggle of dropouts and ne’er-do-wells whose way of life had already been mythologised on screen by a leather-clad Marlon Brando in The Wild One a decade beforehand. There is a fun early scene in which Tom Hardy’s Johnny, the head of the Chicago chapter of this film’s (fictional) Vandals gang, watches Brando’s iconic “Whaddaya got?” scene on television and mouths the line back to himself in awe – and with that, Nichols gives his film its “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a biker” moment.
The confessional voice-over, though, comes from young divorcee Kathy – the Lorraine Bracco of the piece, superbly played by Jodie Comer, who goes to meet a friend at a sticky, stinky saloon and promptly falls for Austin Butler’s Benny, Johnny’s closest confidant. If Hardy’s performance feels like (justified) Brando homage, then Butler is channelling James Dean, crinkling his eyes into a stare that could melt souls at ten paces.
This is the 32-year-old Butler’s first role since his Oscar-nominated lead turn in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, and it is just the kind of quietly magnetic, still-waters-run-deep performance that Elvis Presley would have killed to be able to give. (Michael Shannon’s Zipco, a nervy loather of anti-war “pinkos”, is an entertaining standout among the deeply creased supporting faces.)
The plot, insofar as there is one, traces Hardy’s rise and fall as the leader of his chapter: his original rascally brotherhood find themselves displaced by nihilistic Vietnam veterans, while young would-be usurpers lurk on the sidelines, sharpening their knives. But Nichols’s film is less interested in telling a story than pinning down a particular time, place and attitude – and does so with such pungent precision, you can all but smell it.
Cert TBC, 116 min. Screening at the London Film Festival; in cinemas from December 1