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'The Bikeriders': Motorcycles, Americana, And A Love Triangle

In an engrossing slice of Midwestern Americana through the 1960s to 70s, The Bikeriders (2023) captures the glories and tragedies of a Chicago motorcycle gang. Director Jeff Nichols lifts his story from the pages of the 1968 photographic study by Danny Lyon, whose book emblematised the Chicago biker scene and provides the film with its title. Nichols’ humanist portrait adds dimensions of admirability, and fallibility, to the two-dimensional figures of Lyon’s photographs and transcribed interviews. We watch their full-colour stories unfold before their black-and-white portraits are flashed upon the screen during the end credits. I left the auditorium reminded of the reality I just witnessed, having recognised the familiarity of the figures onscreen as if flicking through an album of distant relatives. The Bikeriders becomes a compelling ode to the tumultuous lives of a biker gang, and those ‘touched’ by its fists and knives, achieved through a hybrid tale of classic Western romance and violent gang crime.

Tom Hardy is Johnny, the formidable yet family-oriented leader of the ‘Chicago Vandals’. Hardy masters a Brando-esque drawl, though more reminiscent of his high-pitched, nasal tone in The Godfather (1972). Brando is further alluded to when we discover Johnny’s motivation behind starting the gang, as he watches The Wild One (1953). When asked what he is rebelling against, Brando’s character growls, “What do you got?”, a poignant foreshadowing of Johnny’s ‘rebel without a cause’ philosophy approaching the outlaw lifestyle. Though the Vandals pride themselves as rebels to the status quo, Kathy (Jodie Comer) draws attention to their self-established internal democracy. Johnny’s authority can be challenged at any given moment, to which he answers with a question: “Fists or knives?”. Austin Butler is Benny, arguably the most badass biker-stroke-cowboy in the film, as well as Johnny’s young protégé. Benny is quiet, refined, and, above all, cool. Johnny and Benny exist as embodiments of James Dean and Marlon Brando, pop culture icons of cultural revolution, freedom, and independence, for the Beatnik generation. What Nichols does, however, is disrupt our ideal romanticisation of the ‘rebel biker’, and highlight the violent realities of gang life.

Nichols implements several intertextual allusions to ‘biker’ cinema in The Bikeriders, enforcing its resurrection of 1960s Americana through a nostalgic lens. There are echoes of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1986) throughout, in its intensely intimate depictions of brotherhood amongst gang members. Coppola’s portrayal of male relationships in the ‘Greaser’ gang prioritises loyalty and protection. Essentially, the boys have only each other to care for. This is paralleled in The Bikeriders when Johnny tells Benny that the Vandals are his one true family, despite a wife and children at home. S.E. Hinton, author of the source book The Outsiders, clearly possessed an affinity for bikers; Coppola adapted another of Hinton’s gang dramas, Rumble Fish (1983), with Mickey Rourke’s ‘Motorcycle Boy’ as a direct reflection of Benny’s obsessive, drifting character. This intertextuality is rife in The Bikeriders, including a direct nod to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), when Funny Sonny (played by Norman Reedus) sits on a motorcycle outside a movie theatre and encourages passers-by to watch the film. Easy Rider was a countercultural touchstone for the youth of 1960s America, following the journey of two freewheeling bikers. The echoes between these films are clear, made all the more explicit by Nichols’ direction.

For me, Comer stole the show as Kathy. She acts as a narrator throughout the film, immediately grabbing your attention with her outrageously eccentric Midwestern twang to recount her experiences with the Vandals to Danny Lyon (played by Mike Faist). Though I have an issue with the inclusion of only one woman protagonist, I consider the absence of female presence in The Bikeriders to be reflective of the misogynist, male-centric ideology of biker gangs in the 1960s. This may be an optimistic assumption of historical accuracy, as the film certainly does not pass the Bechdel Test, and could be an example of misogynist filmmaking. Nonetheless, Kathy’s navigation of the biker scene provides a less-represented perspective of female abuse at the time, which I will return to. Kathy is sharp-witted and refreshing, but most of all, she is deeply in love with Benny. Their relationship is addictively toxic; Kathy repeatedly makes reference to Benny’s lack of emotion. In fact, there are very few scenes of romantic affection between the two. The closest we get is a shot of Benny holding Kathy in a motel bedroom, as they laugh at the television and Kathy nurses Benny’s injuries. This is when the couple appear most ‘together’, when Kathy is allowed to care for Benny in his most vulnerable state. Their relationship is far more maternal than mutual, and Kathy is driven to mother Benny. The lack of respect Benny displays towards Kathy is reminiscent of a rebellious teenager.

Austin Butler as “Benny” in 'The Bikeriders'
Image courtesy of Kyle Kaplan (via Getty/BFI London Film Festival); All Rights Reserved

I found their most entrancing encounter to be their first, when Kathy hops on the back of Benny’s motorcycle for a ride. In an ethereal image, we see the Vandals ride in mass for the first time. The scene is paired with The Shangri-Las’ 1965 hit ‘Out in the Streets’. As the angelic chorus of female voices ascends, the bikers are practically flying. We experience the euphoria of motorcycling, just as Kathy does, for the first time. In fact, we experience most of the film entirely from Kathy’s perspective, providing potentially unreliable narration in her rose-tinted view of Benny. ‘Out in the Streets’ is an especially potent choice of song when you listen to the lyrics, “He don’t hang around with the gang no more. He don’t do the wild things that he did before.” The Shangri-Las forebode the friction of Kathy’s relationship with Benny, as she repeatedly begs him to quit riding and prioritise their marriage.

The Bikeriders could easily be viewed as an adrenaline-pumping, rough-around-the-edges glorification of biker gangs, vying for power, getting into brawls, and attending rural racing ‘picnics’. At its core, however, lies a much deeper power struggle. Truthfully, the film’s narrative revolves around the dysfunctional love triangle between Johnny, Benny, and Kathy. Although some may read the relationship between Johnny and Benny as paternal or brotherly, I find their relationship to be far more complex. In one crucial scene, Nichols creates a close-up shot of Johnny and Benny, their faces in extreme proximity, their lips centimetres from touching. Shadows are cast against them so we can barely make out their silhouettes. Johnny seductively whispers in Benny’s ear, coaxing him to inherit his crown. The scene radiates undertones of homoeroticism, though framed more as that of a groomed relationship than a mutually reciprocated one. Amanda Kramer’s Please Baby Please (2022) provides an equally modern reflection of homoeroticism within 1960s gang culture. Similarly to Nichols, Kramer suggests bisexuality within a love triangle between a married couple and a tough biker named Teddy, played by Karl Glusman, who coincidentally features in The Bikeriders as gang member Corky. Close-up shots of crotches, leather jackets, and fish-net vests are interlayered throughout Please Baby Please, creating a queer reverie of homoerotic iconography, and alluding to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963). Arguably the first of its time, Anger’s short experimental film follows a group of gay Nazi bikers accompanied by a soundtrack of iconic 1960s rock ‘n’ roll. Its exhibitionary display of homosexual symbols, as well as repeated cuts to Brando in his ‘What do you got?’ scene, makes it a likely influence for Nichols and Kramer alike.

Kathy is threatened by Johnny’s influence over Benny, confronting Johnny about it, “You can’t have him. He’s mine”. This language only reinforces the reality of a love triangle between the three, in which Benny exists as an unattainable entity. Kathy and Johnny display competitive possession over Benny throughout, until Kathy later admits at the end of the film, “I guess neither of us got him”. Although Benny remains autonomous, the possession that Benny and Kathy claim over him arguably diminishes his masculinity. He is largely commodified as an object of attraction, which undermines his traditional hyper-masculinity as a gang member. In one haunting scene, Kathy is almost raped by a group of new members. It is a completely terrifying and helpless moment, both for Kathy and the audience. Though Kathy calls desperately for Benny, it is Johnny who comes to her rescue. The scene serves as a symbol of how the love triangle functions; Kathy constantly craves Benny’s attention, which is usually focused upon the desires of Johnny. Kathy’s assault is very much swept under the rug by Benny and the gang, emphasising the common place of violence against women in the 1960s. Kathy even leaves the Vandals’ bar with visible dirty handprints covering her trousers, having been groped relentlessly. Benny’s complete lack of care here not only reduces Nichols’ humanist image of the bikers to an animalistic and primitive one, but also ties into the fluidity of the love triangle dynamic. Benny ‘shares’ Kathy with the rest of the gang, just as Kathy is forced to ‘share’ him with Johnny.

At its end, The Fleetwoods’ 1959 ‘Come Softly to Me’ accompanies our final moments with the characters of The Bikeriders. Having witnessed a film of tragic violence and loss, Nichols’ juxtaposition of a soft, sweet lullaby disarms the audience. As The Fleetwoods sing “I’ve waited, waited so long, For your kisses and your love”, The Bikeriders concludes with the bittersweet reunion of Benny and Kathy. Considering Kathy’s previous note of Benny’s inability to cry, we are touched as Benny sobs into Kathy’s shoulder. It seems interesting though, fitting perhaps, that Benny’s tears come as a result of Johnny’s death. Only when Johnny is murdered, and the triangle is broken, can Benny return to Kathy and reciprocate her vulnerability and love. With Johnny dead and the love triangle fractured, all that remains for Benny and Kathy are the comforts of suburban Americana and the constant calling of motorcycles.

The Bikeriders will be released in the UK on 30th November 2023. Click here to read Strand's LFF review of the film.


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor


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