The Bikeriders

The Bikeriders

Based on an evocative photobook of motorcycle club members from the 1960s, The Bikeriders works best as a mood movie if nothing else. Writer-director Jeff Nichols conceived of a story around the images from Danny Lyon’s photojournalist chronicle but the narrative mainly serves to weave together punctuated character beats. It’s a film fixated on faces, how they move and how they linger from moment to moment. We often talk about blockbusters or big action movies as those that demand to be seen on the big screen but this is an instance where a “smaller” production benefits from the larger format. The gorgeous cinematography from Adam Stone allows images from a specific subculture and setting to wash over us with a power uniquely tailored for the theatrical experience.

Set between 1965 and 1973 in Chicago and the surrounding areas, The Bikeriders centers around three central figures involved with the motorcycle gang known as the Vandals MC. The outlaw group is led by Johnny (Tom Hardy), a wild card who rarely speaks without a cigarette tucked between his lips. Johnny treats younger member Benny (Austin Butler), who puts up a tough front but hides a sensitive side, like a younger brother and a protégé who can keep the club roaring forward once he bows out. When Kathy (Jodie Comer) sets foot inside their bar one evening, everyone sets eyes on her but it’s Benny who takes her home on his bike at the end of the night. Things in the Vandals are good for a time, until unwieldy expansion and culture clashes threaten to tear the group apart for good.

Using a framing device in which Danny Lyon is actually a character in the movie (played by Mike Faist) documenting the events, The Bikeriders shares DNA with the more modern crime saga Hustlers. Both feature a similar structure, where an interview chronologically after the events of the movie sets the scene, even if the criminals they’re depicting have entirely different backgrounds and motivations. As much as Hustlers was influenced by Scorsese’s seminal Goodfellas, The Bikeriders similarly bears the master’s mark and also draws inspiration from Casino as well, with its focus on a trio of two men and a woman witnessing the slow decline of a criminal enterprise. If you’ve seen any of these films already, you’ll likely be ahead of Nichols as he tells his years-long story but the foibles of these characters keep things relatively fresh.

Though the roles they’re playing aren’t always the most three-dimensional, each of the actors bring an entrancing and even endearing quality to their ne’er-do-wells. Jodie Comer is best known for playing characters who also sport her native British tongue but she pulls off a rapturously authentic Chicago accent here and has all the trophy wife mannerisms down pat too. Never one to shy away from a dialectical challenge, Tom Hardy carries over the accent he learned to play midwest-based gangster Al Capone and also brings his unpredictable propensity for violence. Reprising the animal magnetism he culls from playing Elvis Presley a couple years ago, Austin Butler is effortlessly cool as a wayward scamp who needs more guidance than he knows.

A charge has been brought against both movies and TV shows of the past several years that dialogue has gotten more unintelligible, forcing many to opt for subtitles when available. There are several potentially guilty culprits for this concerning trend: poor sound mixing or stylized sound mixing that favors effects over dialogue, more understated performances or smaller speakers in the case of home viewing. Regardless, I need to give kudos to the sound team on this project for working hard to capture dialogue on-set — or after the fact with lines that weren’t obviously voiced over — that was never difficult to understand. Butler and Hardy are two actors who certainly aren’t known to project or enunciate in a good amount of their roles but it was a relief to hear them loud and clear. The engines may roar in The Bikeriders but thankfully, they don’t drown anything out.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is A Quiet Place: Day One, a horror prequel starring Lupita Nyong’o and Joseph Quinn rewinding back to events before the first Quiet Place when bloodthirsty alien creatures with ultrasonic hearing first invade New York City.
Also playing in theaters is Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1, an epic Western starring Kevin Costner and Sienna Miller which chronicles a multi-faceted, 15-year span of pre-and post-Civil War expansion and settlement of the American west.
Streaming on Netflix is A Family Affair, a romantic comedy starring Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron about a young woman, working as the personal assistant to a self-absorbed Hollywood star, who discovers that her boss is having a secret romantic relationship with her widowed mother.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup