‘The Bikeriders’ review: Affectionate yet distant

‘The Bikeriders’ is more an anthropological portrait of a counterculture than a captivating drama

Udita Jhunjhunwala
First Published24 Jun 2024, 12:19 PM IST
Tom Hardy and (right) Austin Butler in 'The Bikeriders'. Image via AP
Tom Hardy and (right) Austin Butler in ’The Bikeriders’. Image via AP

In 1967, journalist-author Hunter S Thompson published Hell’s Angels, a book that gave a ringside view into motorcycle gangs and their sub-culture. Around the same time, another young photojournalist was inspired to catalogue the biker gang Chicago Outlaws. Danny Lyon’s book The Bikeriders, published in 1968, is the source material for a new movie by the same name. Directed by Jeff Nichols, the film retains a slight distance from its mercurial characters and controversial subject as it offers an affectionate glimpse into this brotherhood of rebels without a cause.

As Lyon did, Nichols, who has also adapted the book to film, documents the characters, their adventures, dramas and the changes in motorcycle clubs from the mid-60s to the early 1970s when the shift towards crime and violence began.

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The 116-minute crime-drama tells the story of the fictional Vandals Motorcycle club through the various members of the Chicago chapter, and some of their families. The club is led by Johnny (Tom Hardy) who sees a successor in the accident-prone and daring Benny (Austin Butler). The brooding James Dean-esque Benny catches the eye and fancy of Kathy (Jodie Comer). Kathy becomes the primary narrator for a story that unfolds through the beats of her relationship with Benny and their relationship with Johnny, as told to Lyon (played by Mike Faist). There are also portraits of gang members Zipco (Michael Shannon), Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Brucie (Damon Herriman), Cockroach (Emory Cohen) etc.

Cinematographer Adam Stone fondly films the unkempt and grimy leather-clad bikers as they ride in formation, intimidating all those they pass by or hang out in dimly-lit, smoke-filled bars, immersing you into the period. The palette is limited, with sepia-tinted, retro imagery. Costumes and art direction are replete with details, from the patches and iconography on jackets to hairstyles. There’s a hat-tip to 1960s biker movies like Easy Rider (1969) and movie stars, especially Marlon Brando (The Wild One, 1953).

Butler channels motorcycle-loving James Dean and you wish the ‘Elvis’ star had more to do here. Hardy adeptly delivers a portrait of a hard man caught between community and fatigue. Neither actor has many words, but they smoulder, simmer and convey sensitivity under the hypermasculinity. Comer as Kathy is the soul and through her we see the love stories – between Kathy and Benny, Benny and his bike, Johnny and the club.

Conflicts abound, yet one doesn’t feel emotionally connected to these characters whose life choices are so particular, and often violent. At times the film feels like a photo-exhibit with long monographs accompanying the images of self-destructive men forced to confront a transformation from a loyal brotherhood to power-driven criminal gangs.The Bikeriders is more of an anthropological portrait of a counterculture and its metamorphosis than a captivating drama.

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First Published:24 Jun 2024, 12:19 PM IST
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