‘They ride, they drink, they get dangerous’: the blazing film inspired by the Hells Angels’ biggest rivals

<span>‘I wouldn’t use the term glorify’ … Austin Butler leads the whiskery brutes.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Focus Features/AP</span>
‘I wouldn’t use the term glorify’ … Austin Butler leads the whiskery brutes.Photograph: Courtesy of Focus Features/AP

Anyone less like a Hells Angel would be difficult to imagine. Yet Jeff Nichols – this genial, softly spoken director, with his pink face and modest quiff of wavy, silver-streaked hair – is responsible for The Bikeriders, a movie thick with the roar of engines and the smell of grease. Inspired by photographer Danny Lyon’s 1967 book of the same name, it stars Tom Hardy as Johnny, the ageing leader of a Chicago biker gang; Austin Butler as Benny, its coolest member; and Jodie Comer as Kathy, who falls for Benny. Lyon rode with and profiled the Outlaws but Nichols has fictionalised the gang, renaming them the Vandals to avoid aggro from the real-life subjects.

“Becoming the historian of the Outlaws was not my goal,” explains the 45-year-old film-maker, seated in front of a wall of books and knick-knacks at his home in Austin, Texas. “Fictionalising them became the safest approach. These guys aggressively protect their colours, their emblem, so I didn’t want to offend them. They’re the second largest motorcycle gang in the world after the Hells Angels.” So had they been ranked only sixth or seventh, it might have been different? “I’m not saying that,” he laughs. “Let them all be over there, and I’ll stay here in my separate space.”

There is a lot of sexuality in the film – just no actual sex in the bushes

Lyon described his book as an attempt to record and glorify the life of the American biker, but Nichols takes a different approach. “I wouldn’t use the term ‘glorify’. The first hour is intended to be romantic, for sure. Even though there’s violence, we’re having fun: we invite the audience in. Once you reach the second half, the music pulls back, the voiceover falls away, and the realities of the choices these people have made start to be seen in serious ways.”

That voiceover is one of the most striking elements of The Bikeriders. In a film that is shoulder-to-leather-clad-shoulder with whiskery brutes boozing, brawling and revving their bikes, it is nothing short of radical to give narrating duties to a woman. This is Kathy, who is interviewed on a reel-to-reel tape machine by Danny (Mike Faist) in moments that intentionally place some distance between the audience and the bikers. Lorraine Bracco was only trusted to narrate a few scenes in Goodfellas, but The Bikeriders is guided by Kathy’s sceptical perspective.

“I wish I could say it was a high-minded thing,” says Nichols. “You know, ‘It’s time to have a woman narrate this masculine movie!’ That idea wasn’t lost on me. But the truth was that Kathy is the most interesting voice in the book. She’s self-deprecating, introspective, maddening at times, but also hilarious and sincere. Even though the guys like her, she’s still an outsider because she’s a woman. That makes her the perfect lens through which to view this hyper-masculine situation.”

Comer turned out to be more than a match for Hardy in their scenes together. Kathy, who is in a tug-of-war with Johnny over her beau, confronts him in an electrifying showdown, warning him that Benny will die if he keeps riding with the Vandals. “Whenever two actors are facing off in a scene, I always ask them, ‘Who wants to go first?’ Jodie came in and her tempo was bam-bam-bam! She’s trying to run the scene fast, and Tom’s reaction was to slow right down. She ended up asking me, ‘Can you tell him to speed up?’ But it was much more frustrating that way. Oh man, that scene was great! Tom turned to me after the first take and said, ‘Holy shit, she’s something else.’”

The three leads form an odd kind of love triangle. Benny is serenely beautiful, for sure, with Butler carrying over a crackling, feline sexuality from his Oscar-nominated performance in Elvis. But Johnny doesn’t want to sleep with Benny, insists Nichols: he wants to be him. “He covets him. He’d like to absorb him. I knew it wouldn’t be overtly homosexual: that would over-simplify it. But there’s something there. Tom wears this leather jacket, and underneath that he’s also wearing a leather vest that’s cinched. Obviously, he’s a totally ripped guy so every time he moved, you’d hear this creeeak. You can’t get away from that sound – it imbues the scenes with sexuality.”

When Nichols made his last film, Loving, about the real-life relationship which in 1967 overturned US laws against inter-racial marriage, he said: “The two things Americans don’t want to deal with are race and sex.” The Bikeriders has neither. Biker classics like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless drip with eroticism, whereas Nichols’s picture feels chaste. When he tells me that the real Benny and Kathy went on to have a son, I’m flabbergasted: there’s no evidence in the movie that they even had sex.

“That was a studio note that came up,” he recalls. “Someone said, ‘Do we ever see them kiss?’ And we don’t. It hadn’t occurred to me because the rest of it – Kathy and Benny in the bar, then her on the back of his motorcycle – is so charged. But I do think there’s a lot of sexuality there, even though we don’t have people fucking in the bushes.”

Let’s agree to disagree on that. What the film is certainly good at is subtly undermining its tough guys. Benny himself remains enigmatic, even nebulous. “Danny never interviewed him. And though there are three photographs of Benny in the book, you never see his face. He’s kind of mythologised. Kathy talks about him, and there are newspaper clippings about how he ran all these stop signs. The film asks, ‘Is this guy really a badass – or do we just want him to be?’”

For all its violence, though, I wonder whether The Bikeriders isn’t guilty of whitewashing. Lyon reported that one of the Outlaws “rolled out a huge Nazi flag as a picnic rug” but the Vandals display no such objectionable tendencies. “I was more interested in how a thing like this gets started,” Nichols says. “Usually it’s a social club for people who feel they don’t belong in the mainstream. They hang out, ride motorcycles, drink beer. That morphs into something more formalised and ultimately more dangerous. I asked Danny what that Nazi stuff was about. I’d read that these guys’ fathers had served in the war, and this was a ‘Fuck you’ to them. Danny’s response was, ‘They weren’t that smart. They just thought it looked cool, and they wanted to shock.’”

What does he make of where male-oriented groups are at today: the rancid male enclaves of “incel” culture, or the followers of Andrew Tate? “Oh man,” he sighs. “It’s weird with chat forums and the internet amplifying these communities when it was probably just three dudes drinking beer and going, ‘This sucks.’ Take the Proud Boys. I’m sure there was some unifying grievance but I doubt the idea of storming the US Capitol was on their minds when they first got together. I think it’s human nature to want to be part of a thing. We want to find an identity.”

Nichols has always been drawn to stories of “people feeling like they don’t quite belong in the mainstream so they move to the outside”. That idea defines his 2011 film Take Shelter, in which his regular collaborator Michael Shannon plays a possibly deranged man protecting his family against a coming apocalypse; or Mud, with Matthew McConaughey as a fugitive befriended by two teenage boys. What The Bikeriders demonstrates is how even the most rebellious sub-cultures develop their own orthodoxies.

“Identity is such a big topic today,” he says. “Everybody is finding their unique identity, whether that’s race or sex or sexuality. We’re all looking for our own story. What’s strange to me is, in the pursuit of that, you get wrapped up in these groups, and then by definition they have to start coming up with rules and structures. Before you know it, these people who felt they didn’t want to live by society’s rules are now living by another set of rules. As humans, we’re susceptible to that. I find it quite scary.”

He witnessed it himself when he was growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas. “It’s a relatively small city in the American south, but we had a thriving local punk rock scene. I learned to play drums and was in a couple of bad punk bands, but what I remember is it felt like it was ours. None of us were doing it to become famous. Our agenda was pure. But then punk as an idea in Arkansas started to formalise, and rules were applied, ‘This is punk, that’s not. You’re not punk rock enough. And why are you in that polo shirt?’”

He smiles, perhaps realising that this is exactly what he is wearing today. “Then you find yourself walking around the mall and Green Day is playing over the speakers. That’s when you realise, ‘Well, I guess it’s not ours any more.’”

• The Bikeriders is in cinemas from 21 June.