Film reviews and more since 2009

The Bikeriders (2024) review

Dir. Jeff Nichols

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★½

Jeff Nichols makes his welcomed return to cinemas — eight years after his last film, Midnight Special — with The Bikeriders, a greasy deep-dive into the world of motorcycle gangs in 1960s Chicago featuring actors nobly attempting the region’s deceptively complex dialect.

Some-20 years ago, Nichols picked up a copy of Danny Lyon’s photobook The Bikeriders and marveled at the images therein. A Brooklyn native, Lyon traveled with the Outlaws Motorcycle Club for four years, riding high off inspiration from Hunter S. Thompson’s book on the Hell’s Angels biker gang. You could see the romantic side of the project, even if Lyon later became perturbed by the violence and antisemitism that contributed to the gang’s identity. Nichols is the ideal filmmaker to bring the nearly 60-year-old book’s images to life. The passage of time make it easy to forget how his films like Take Shelter and Mud were textured depictions of masculinity in the Midwest and deep south, respectively.

Nichols transports us to Chicago and the outskirts of the city (the Outlaws were founded in McCook, roughly 20 minutes from where I grew up), a notable change from the smaller locales he often favors. This biker gang calls themselves the Vandals, comprised of various tough, mostly middle-aged men looking for an outlet governed by unwritten rules and the freedom their bikes allow.

The similarities to Goodfellas run amok in The Bikeriders, most notably in Nichols’ framework, which involves Chicago housewife Kathy (Jodie Comer) relaying the story of the Vandals to Lyon (Mike Faist of recent Challengers fame) from her vantage point. Comer’s Kathy is so very similar to Lorraine Bracco’s Karen in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece; just replace Bracco’s Italian drawl with Comer’s Midwestern accent, a hybrid of Windy City and Yooper dialect.

The story she tells begins with her meeting Benny (Austin Butler), a biker of few words, at a bar. Despite her disgust at being nonconsensual eye-candy for groping, ogling bikers, she can’t take her eyes of Benny and his slicked-back hair, dirty denim jacket, and confident swagger. She walks out of the bar with handprints all over her white pants and then proceeds to spend the night on the back of Benny’s motorcycle, arriving home to her boyfriend in the wee hours of the morning while Benny waits for her to emerge again, chain-smoking cigarettes on his bike while leering into their home. Later that day, Kathy’s boyfriend packs his stuff and leaves. That’s Benny’s in. “Five weeks later, I married him,” she tells Lyon.

The Vandals’ founder/leader is Johnny (Tom Hardy with a uniquely raspy, reedy version of the Chicago accent), a married man and father of two kids, who you could believe wanted to find an excuse to spend his days in dimly lit dive bars sucking down Old Style and going fisticuffs with other rugged men in the community. Johnny loves what he’s built, but throughout the film, nervously grapples at the changes brought on by scrappier, younger members who are guided less by principles and more-so by impulse. Some members are proposing the Vandals be permitted to establish other chapters in Milwaukee and Columbus, but how will Johnny maintain control of those?

Johnny has one line that says it all. It may be the best in the film: “You can give everything you got to a thing and it’s still just gonna do what it’s gonna do.” You don’t have to hang out and mingle with guys known as Zipco (Michael Shannon), Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), Shitty Pete, and Cockroach (Emory Cohen) to feel that line in your soul.

The Bikeriders is a poignantly satisfying hangout movie anchored by three leads who make the most of their screentime in vastly different affects. Comer’s Kathy is loquacious but eloquent, and Nichols’ decision to frame the film around her perspective prevents a male bias. Think about it. If told from Johnny’s perspective, the story would be divided between good guys and bad guys within the Vandals; or rank might be pulled. Lyon is just here for an interesting saga and unique experiences. Kathy is happy to oblige.

Tom Hardy finds Marlon Brando energy in his character, Johnny. He can engage his peers with charisma and a propensity to entertain just like Brando in The Wild One (which also happens to be Johnny’s inspiration for starting the Vandals) and he can arrest the audience by being pensive like Brando in The Godfather. Your mileage on his nasally Chicago accent might vary. I can point to a few locals from back home with voices who would make you chuckle.

Austin Butler’s Benny is the quietest one of the bunch, whose lack of dialog adds to his mystique for us and Kathy. The two don’t share any true romantic moments between the two. Their relationship appears to be one of out mutual admiration and contentment; she is in awe of him, he appreciates the way she cares for his badly injured foot. Like in Elvis, Butler finds a way to be a presence without saying a whole lot.

If you’re hoping for a rollicking soundtrack, you’ll be treated to a few well-timed needle-drops, and some Cream, but the real star in the auditory department are the bikes themselves. They’re loud and menacing. It’s as if they’re actively shredding the speakers. How fitting that Nichols’ return to the big screen is both loud and audacious while also being equally subdued and fluid, just like his best works.

NOTE: The Bikeriders is now playing exclusively in theaters.

My review of Take Shelter
My review of Mud (2012)
My review of Loving (2016)

Starring: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Norman Reedus, Boyd Holbrook, Emory Cohen, and Happy Anderson. Directed by: Jeff Nichols.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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