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LFF 2023: The Bikeriders (Or: Goodfellas on Two Wheels)

Image Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

Jeff Nichols’ exploration (and sometimes celebration) of the masculinity of the American midwest finds perhaps its most pointed and persuasive vehicle yet in The Bikeriders, brutal, stylish, and very entertaining portrait of the golden age of the motorcycle gang. A ’60s counterculture for those too invested in masculinity to become a hippie, but too undisciplined and undesirable to toe the line. There’s a strong lineage of biker movies to draw from, and The Bikeriders namechecks The Wild One overtly, and there’s also echoes of This is England and The Firm in its depiction of a hyper-masculine subculture falling apart as it attracts increasingly dangerous and unstable elements and the violence starts to escalate, but the touchstone Nichols exploits most freely is without question Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. From the opening bars of the Shangri-Las to the nostalgic tone of heroine Kathy’s (Jodie Comer) brassy narration, it’s exuding Goodfellas vibes from every pore.

There’s no shortage of Goodfellas wannabes and it’s tempting to say that Nichols has missed the boat on making one, but The Bikeriders, a selection of the 2023 London Film Festival, is all about nostalgia, longing for an era of “whaddaya got?” white working class rebellion that got carried off by the current of history. In its best moments, The Bikeriders plays as a less audacious, less political expression of the kind of film Arthur Penn was making around the time it’s set, conveying the frustrations, disillusionment and disappointment of the countercultural revolution as it sputtered to a halt like a motorcycle running out of gas.

Jodie Comer plays Kathy, a straight laced young woman who is initially repulsed by the motorcycle gang in company with which she finds herself, but she is instantly intrigued (more captivated) by Benny (Austin Butler), the devil-may-care rogue who steals her heart. Via a photographer who regularly interviews Kathy and other members of the gang, she narrates the rise and fall of the Chicago Vandals, from their formation by level-headed tough guy Johnny (Tom Hardy), to their eventual demise years later.

There’s a lot of fun to be had getting to know the various colorful characters populating the Vandals, ranging from the clearly emotionally damaged and kind of scary, to the just plain-old none-too-bright. The plot driving the film forward may be the conflict between Kathy and Johnny for the heart of the untamable Benny, but real meat of the story lies in the romantic-absurdist affection the film holds for the macho bonding rituals and weird moral codes Johnny holds the group to.

The Bikeriders benefits from a great ensemble cast. Comer in particular is excellent, transitioning seamlessly from shy, flustered small town girl to world weary and worried wife. The true standout is definitely Hardy who is finally reunited with a project that’s as good as he is in it. He relishes every second of his screentime as the pragmatic leader showing how to keep a large group of extremely macho, tough-headed guys in line, until the day he wakes up and realizes he can’t anymore. The deadpan humor of his performance perfectly captures a guy who’s too smart and self-assured to be a meathead, but ticks all the other boxes. Austin Butler is given free reign to mine the role for all the matinee idol swagger he can and as with The Royal Hotel, Toby Wallace is legitimately scary as this movie’s “Benny Blanco…from the Bronx”. Also, since it’s a Jeff Nichols movie, Michael Shannon showed up on set one day and most of what he did there made the edit.

The Bikeriders isn’t exactly the most unique or profound movie. I do love how it explores the way social movements inevitably take on lives of their own, often for the worse, and the characters’ disillusionment in that is certainly a relevant perspective, though I think the movie could’ve made more of that. One of the film’s most inspired choices is framing much of its narrative through the eyes of the outsider Kathy, someone to whom these self-destructive male bonding rituals are something familiar to shake your head at, in between smiling fondly or even biting your lip as the sweat rolls down Benny’s strong arms. There’s a lot of entertainment value to be had in approaching the story that way and Comer sells it with deft humor, before events take a darker turn, by which time we’re invested enough in these characters to feel something when the stakes get higher.

Nichols is walking a fine line between romanticizing these hoodlums and ridiculing their absurd practices and this ambivalence, though I’m sure some will consider it a flaw, is the essence of the movie and its most compelling and rewarding aspect. These guys are just regular guys who feel alienated from mainstream culture and form a community founded in rejecting societal norms and pursuing their common interests. Those common interests just happen to be pot, beer, motorbikes, and beating each other up. Either way, there’s a point where it gets a little too real for everyone and it ceases to be either romantic or funny. Eventually, it becomes a kind of eulogy to the innocence these gangs represented, a time where you could rebel against nothing in particular, and had a community who would look out for you no matter what. It was stupid, but it was theirs, man!

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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