THE BIKERIDERS – Review by Diane Carson

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The Bikeriders depicts a 1960s Chicago motorcycle gang

As predictable as the sun setting in the west, The Bikeriders features a motorcycle gang revving their bikes, fighting among themselves and with interlopers, and treating women badly. Photojournalist Danny Lyon spent years with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in preparation for his 1968 photojournalistic book The Bikeriders, which writer/director Jeff Nichols adapted, calling the group The Vandals.

As with Lyon, Nichols accurately depicts this 1960s counter-culture: the classic choppers, the sneers, the tough-guy attitudes, and matching black leather jackets emblazoned with a skull and dagger. However, despite some amusing moments, there is little joy in this community of outsiders beyond their obligatory loyalty to each other. The cast includes Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, and Jodie Comer in exceptional performances that, nevertheless, can not save the dreary world of dimly lit bars, macho posing, and recourse to violence. In a nod to photojournalist Nichols, Danny (Mike Faist) records bikers’ interaction. The fictionalized story revolves around young gang member Benny (Butler) and his assertive, intelligent wife Kathy (Comer) whose relationship, unsurprisingly, evolves into a charged series of confrontations. That involves Vandals’ leader Johnny (Tom Hardy), who enforces brotherhood allegiance with unforgiving decrees and brutal behavior, especially against wannabe joiners.

In a press interview for last year’s Telluride Film Festival where I first saw The Bikeriders, Nichols explained his unusual, significant decision to anchor events in Kathy’s point-of-view. He noted, “It wasn’t lost on me that this was going to be a hypermasculine film . . . an American motorcycle gang—to have that seen through the lens of a female character felt appropriate . . . it offered a more complete picture.” Indeed, the perspective does provide novelty, but Kathy deserves a film with more complex substance, less sound and fury.

Adding a cultural touchstone, the music and sound design communicate the 1960s milieu as does Adam Stone’s cinematography. Julie Monroe’s editing effectively drives the action and adds intensity to dialogue scenes. As a bonus, a selection of Lyon’s original photos accompanies the end credits. The Bikeriders is a well-made film, but it is not an appealing environment. The Bikeriders is available now.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.