REVIEW – ‘The Bikeriders’ soars on the strength of its impressive cast but lacks the depth to be something special

It’s been an odd journey to the multiplexes for Jeff Nichols‘ The Bikeriders. After debuting at the Telluride Film Festival in August and seemingly on a trajectory for awards season consideration, 20th Century Studios pulled the film from its December release due to the actors’ strike showing no signs of ending. Rather than wait for a new date, New Regency shopped around and sold distribution rights to Focus Features, who, rather surprisingly, dated the film for a U.S. summer release.

Whether that move pays off at the box office remains to be seen. And whether the film will still be remembered come awards season is another tough task. In what will likely be your dad’s favourite movie this summer, Nichols offers a highly entertaining and effortlessly cool crowd-pleaser that soars on the strength of its impressive ensemble cast but lacks the depth to be something truly special. Led by a trio of terrific performances from Austin ButlerTom Hardy, and a sensational Jodie Comer, it’s a solid film damaged by a shallow screenplay.

Set in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the film is framed around interviews between photojournalist Danny (Mike Faist) and Kathy (Comer), a quick-talking firecracker recounting her complicated experiences with a Chicago-based motorcycle club known as the Vandals. When Kathy first inadvertently steps foot inside a biker bar, she’s repulsed by the toxic masculinity permeating from this group of jugheads. That is until she locks eyes with the smouldering Benny (Butler). Five weeks later, the two are married and Kathy is swiftly indoctrinated into the biker community.

While Benny clearly adores his devoted wife, it’s obvious his first love is motorcycles. He’s fiendishly protective of Kathy, but his true loyalty lies with the Vandals, particularly its quiet yet intimidating leader Johnny (Hardy), a trucker who established the club as a surrogate family for local outcasts. That group now includes Johnny’s right-hand man Brucie (Damon Herriman); spaced-out army reject Zipco (Michael Shannon); Californian escapee Cal (Boyd Holbrook); stocky jokester Cockroach (Emory Cohen) and reliable footsoldiers Corky (Karl Glusman) and Wahoo (Beau Knapp).

The early peaceful days of the Vandals are filled with meetups at the bar, gatherings at the local park, and lazily cruising around town, as Johnny relishes in the tight bond of brotherhood and community he’s founded. However, as the group grows larger, new chapters are formed in neighbouring towns that don’t quite share Johnny’s vision. As the Vandals start to dabble with organised crime and brutal violence, Benny finds himself caught between his marriage to Kathy and his allegiance to Johnny.

A textbook definition of an ensemble piece, Nichols is blessed with an embarrassment of riches with one of the best casts of the year and another home run for casting director Francine Maisler (her staggering 2024 resume includes Challengers, Civil War, Dune: Part Two, and the upcoming Joker: Folie à Deux). While Butler may currently be Hollywood’s latest “it boy,” pay attention to the fact Comer’s name is billed first on the film’s poster. This is undoubtedly her film and she eats it alive. That’s quite a task for a movie dripping with masculine energy, but one she relishes.

From the moment Comer takes the screen, you cannot take your eyes off her. Kathy is the big beating of this film. She’s both an outspoken, ballsy spark plug and a lovesick, naive fool. She’s wise enough to know she’s always second on Benny’s totem pole, but she still fatuously yearns for him to move her into first place. It’s a deeply empathetic turn where Comer radiates warmth and confidence in every moment. The amount of rapid-fire dialogue Nichols throws Comer’s way is staggering, but she handles it all with aplomb. If you’ve seen her stage work in Prima Facie, that should come as no surprise. And her northwestern accent never once falters. It’s Comer’s best film performance to date and likely to stand as one of the most memorable of the year.

Channelling James Dean and Marlon Brando (Johnny actually gets the idea to form the Vandals after watching Brando in The Wild One), Butler is super suave and devilishly sultry with the kind of nature, irresistible charm that makes it easy to see how Kathy instantly falls under Benny’s spell. With a quick temper and a gruff exterior, there’s clearly a lot behind this bad boy that makes him the way he is. It’s just a shame Nichols’ screenplay isn’t interested in delving into any form of character introspection. Still, lack of nuance aside, Butler is typically magnetic to watch and it’s a role he plays incredibly well.

As the stern, imposing club leader, Hardy is solid with a voice, accent, and character type that feels very reminiscent of Sean Penn in Mystic River. If you’re going to emulate a previous role, picking an Oscar-winning one is a smart move. Johnny isn’t the biggest man in the group, but he’s the one everyone both respects and fears. He’s commanding without necessarily being physical. He’s smart enough to know when to deliver a punch and when to use his words. But he’s a man of an era that seems to be coming to an end, gifting Hardy with the strongest character arc as Johnny’s world begins to change exponentially.

Nichols’ screenplay unveils the history of the Vandals through a series of key moments as narrated by Kathy. It’s all beautifully presented with perfectly vintage production design from Chad Keith, costuming from Erin Benach, and a great rock’n’roll soundtrack. It’s a great character piece filled with a plethora of endearing bikers and their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies. There’s compelling drama, plenty of violence, and some much-needed and well-earned levity. But the narrative fails to dig beyond its conventional storytelling approach that rarely dives deeper than surface-level fodder. For a film about breaking the rules, it oddly plays by far too many of them.

As much as the script may leave you yearning for more, The Bikeriders never lags and the strengths of its wonderful ensemble keep you fully invested throughout. Comer, Butler, and Hardy make for a sublime pairing. It feels like the kind of film that might finally get Comer the attention of American casting directors she deserves. For audiences who grew up with films like The Wild OneEasy Rider, and Rebel Without a Cause, this one will play like gangbusters. It’s an old-school good time at the movies with enough heart, harm, humour, and humanity to get it racing across the line.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman, Beau Knapp, Emory Cohen, Karl Glusman, Toby Wallace, Norman Reedus
Director: Jeff Nichols
Producers: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Arnon Milchan
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Cinematography: Adam Stone
Production Design: Chad Keith
Costume Design: Erin Benach
Editor: Julie Monroe
Music: David Wingo

Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: 4th July 2024 (Australia)

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