In mid-twentieth-century America, the steed became metal. The elegant, slender physique of the horse was replaced by fat metal tyres and a skeleton of menacing metal tubes. This new steed roared fast and loud over racetracks, or through traffic, or, on occasion, into oblivion. It is this oblivion, for better or worse, where we find ourselves at the end of The Bikeriders: Jeff Nichols’ take on Danny Lyon’s photo book of the same name.
There is a superb sequence in the film that functions as an appropriate metaphor for this movie. In this sequence we see Benny (Austin Butler), the laconic heartthrob of The Vandals motorcycle club, hightailing it through town on his motorbike, thundering through suburbs, being pursued by cops. Benny dodges oncoming traffic, propelled by the horsepower beneath him and his infamous aplomb. He eventually loses the cops when he makes it onto the highway and, proud of himself and jacked on adrenaline, lets out a ‘woohoo!’. It is a beautiful moment. Yet a few seconds later, Benny’s bike coughs and splutters: he’s out of gas. He has no option but to pull over and let the cops arrest him. This sequence basically sums up all that’s right and wrong with The Bikeriders: after a riveting start, the film simply runs out of gas.
I think that this is in part due to how mammoth the task of filming the book is. The Bikeriders works wonderfully as a book. Lyon’s scrapbook approach to documenting this fleeting episode of American history provides an intimate chronicle of the men and women who were involved in that scene. But Nichols’ film, whilst proving to be an interesting peek into a myth that hasn’t received that much screen time, fails to summon an engaging story from its source material. Our port of call is Kathy (Jodie Comer), whose role as Benny’s wife provides the low down on the happenings and secrets of The Vandals. Through a juxtaposition of a dialogue between her and Danny (Mike Faist), our interviewer, and a visualisation of the events themselves, she narrates our story.
We begin, as all the best romances do, in a grubby bar. Kathy is here to lend her friend money, yet upon entering the bar and seeing that it’s full of drunken, half-naked bikers, Kathy quickly plans her escape. Looking for the exit, her eyes find Benny: cig, vest, tattoos (think James Dean who hasn’t showered in a month). Instantly attracted to one another, the two exchange a hello, drowned out by the tension locking their eyes together. But Kathy, playing it cool, eventually leaves and goes to wait for the bus.
Then, after a peculiar yet cute courting sequence, it’s revealed in Kathy’s voiceover that five weeks later, she and Benny are married. And so commences Kathy’s inauguration into the world of the bikeriders: boozing, doping, riding and fighting. She slowly meets the gang but seems never to climb above the title of ‘Benny’s mistress’, or surpass the love her husband has for his two wheels. After all, the club is a collection of burly primates, with nicknames that are no misnomers: Shitty Pete, Funny Sonny, and Cockroach. It’s a strange world, but one that’s nonetheless intriguing. We ride on.
No actual plot reveals itself until about halfway through the picture, when Johnny (Tom Hardy), the president of The Vandals, says to Benny how much he’d like Benny to one day succeed him as president of the club. But Benny, not wanting the responsibility of running a motorcycle club, declines. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful scene, with a homosocial energy that finally brings some long-awaited tenderness. Here we see not only the love between these two men and their mutual respect, but we are also shown who Benny really is: a drifter, born
for the road, who wants “nothin’ from nobody”. He is a free spirit, whose carelessness is envied by his peers.
And it’s after this that our metaphorical gas tank reaches the warning light. The Vandals continue in their ways: they fight, they fornicate, they feast. But we soon begin our fall from grace. Newer, rougher kids, fresh from the Vietnam War join the club. Things become ugly. The small group of friends that The Vandals originally consisted of slowly disappear, and are replaced by thugs and junkies. The golden days are over. Johnny tries one last time to ask Benny to succeed him, but the answer is still no. The club descends, ironically, into anarchy, and doesn’t seem to be able to recover. It’s a fall from grace done with less pizzaz than the film’s key influence, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, but it’s nevertheless impactful.
I enjoyed The Bikeriders. Think of the film as a riff on Goodfellas but with more hair and filth and you’re pretty much there. It’s fun. It’s a hoot to watch in a cinema, and if you have any interest in this era of American history then I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too. But the film does have its issues. And this is understandable: the book is elusive in the sense that so many different stories can be taken from it. We could focus solely on one character and their life, or, like Nichols, we could attempt to combine a bunch of characters into a Scorsesian epic that captures the tragic descent of a dream into a nightmare. As audacious and exciting as Nichols’ decision to do this was, I do think it is the ultimate reason why the film runs out of gas: the movie cannot offer us a hand into the heart of the story because the film never seems to decide whose story it is trying to tell.
It is a shame because there was certainly a filmable story there: I would’ve loved to have seen a movie solely focussed on Johnny and Benny’s relationship, for instance, or Zipco’s (Michael Shannon) story, but perhaps Nichols was too spoiled for choice, and simply tried to marry several stories together. Thus, when it arrives, the fall from grace lacks the guttural punch that Goodfellas or Boogie Nights (1997) deals because there was no one in the film we could really empathise with or get to know. Consequently, then, whilst The Bikeriders rides along as good entertainment, it ultimately rides off into nowhere. Into oblivion.
The Bikeriders will be released in the UK on 30th November 2023
Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor