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The Bikeriders – movie review

Inspired by the reflections of a photojournalist who spent four years as a member of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, The Bikeriders is about testosterone. It’s based around a fictional biker gang known as the Vandals and its founder, Johnny Davis (Tom Hardy).

Married with two children, Johnny is a truck driver, although all we see of him is as the brooding and ruthless gang leader.  His most trusted associate is thrill-seeker Benny Cross (Austin Butler), who says little but never shies away from a fight. The story unfolds between 1965 and 1973 through interviews conducted by photojournalist Danny (Mike Faist) with club members and their partners. The focus is particularly on Benny’s wife Kathy (Jodie Comer), who meets Benny by chance at a bar.

At the time she has a boyfriend, but a moment later he’s gone, replaced by Benny, who literally parks himself on her doorstep. The intimidation Kathy felt from the bikers when she first entered the bar is gone. Five weeks later she marries Benny. We see how the club was formed and how important a role it plays in the members’ lives. Put simply, to many it’s everything. They include Johnny and Benny, but we get potted portraits of others too.

Soon chapters of the Vandals are springing up all over the Midwest, but not before Johnny is challenged to a fist fight for control of the Chicago operation. Benny’s loyalty to Johnny is tested after he’s assaulted for wearing club colours and badly injured. And Benny’s relationship with Kathy also gets a workout.

The Bikeriders shows how violence and fear were significant parts of the gang’s culture. Having said that, they have their own rules of engagement, which (although intimidatory) are nothing on the rising new generation of thugs. The newcomersr are sinister, whereas you get the feeling that writer and director Jeff Nichols (Loving) has a respect for the original gang. Nichols’ starting point was Danny Lyon’s 1968 book of the same title.

Adopting a strong Midwestern accent, Jodie Comer is compelling as, arguably, the heartbeat of the film. As Kathy, she tells the riders’ story, warts and all, proud, unashamed and without pretense. Her character has a fearless quality about her. Tom Hardy is measured, hardened and astute as Johnny, a man with a world-weary look about him. As Benny, Austin Butler is a picture of fire and restraint. He’s enigmatic. James Dean move over. His explosions of pique contrast sharply with that of a man who wants to be left to his own devices. Among the other standouts in the cast is Michael Shannon as Zipco, a gang member who doesn’t run with college boys.

Nichols brings a lyrical quality to the storytelling, which details the start and end of an era. Cinematographer Adam Stone has done a fine job capturing the spirit of the nation at the time.

Alex First

 

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