The Bikeriders review: Jodie Comer ensures you pay attention to this violent, sometimes tragic biker-gang saga

This flawed, fascinating film, also starring Austin Butler and Tom Hardy, resists the hollow allure of cheap tribalism

The Bikeriders: Jodie Comer and Austin Butler in Jeff Nichols's film. Photograph: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features
The Bikeriders
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Director: Jeff Nichols
Cert: 15A
Starring: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman, Beau Knapp, Emory Cohen
Running Time: 1 hr 56 mins

It hardly needs to be said that Jeff Nichols’s fascinating study of 1960s biker life is steeped in mythology and elegy. That world has been nearly as romanticised as has the old west (and often in similar manifest-destiny fashion). What does surprise here is the information that, even before the rock era had properly begun, the gangs knew they were acting out codified legends.

Speaking in Tom Hardy’s singsong goose voice, Johnny, leader of the gang, lets us know he got the idea for Vandals MC, a Chicago-based motorcycle club, when watching Marlon Brando on telly in The Wild One. Yes, there is something of the pioneer days here. But there is also something of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Jeff Nichols on his film The Bikeriders: ‘For me it’s a combination of two things – Danny Lyon’s book and GoodFellas’ ]

The Bikeriders is, nonetheless, keen to press home how hard these characters work to shut out the surrounding world. Jodie Comer takes a wild vocal swing as our guide through a now lost era. Nichols, versatile director of Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Loving, has Mike Faist as the young Danny Lyon, author of the source documentary-photography book, gathering quotes after one generation of the gang has dispersed. Comer plays Kathy, partner to Austin Butler’s Benny, in the style of Judy Holiday voicing a cartoon rabbit. It’s a stretch, but she ensures you pay attention to her violent, sometimes tragic saga.

Or is that the word? Sagas tend to move along propulsive narrative arcs. Taking its shape (or shapelessness) from Lyon’s book, the film spends more time sketching out vignettes than telling us a story. Kathy ended up hooked to Benny when, in classic rock’n’roll-rebel fashion, he parked his bike outside her house and refused to leave until her boyfriend quit the scene.


This is the sort of stalker behaviour that dubious 1980s films felt romantic, but, in The Bikeriders, it counts as one manifestation of a wider arrested development among the overwhelmingly male bikers. Everyone wants to be a greasier Brando. “I’ve had nothing but trouble since I met Benny,” squawks Jenny. “It can’t be love. It must be stupidity.”

The Nichols regular Michael Shannon turns up to spout suspicion of “pinkos” and to remind us that there was an inherent conservatism to this subculture. Norman Reedus, mouth like an ashtray full of shelled cockles, arrives from California with news of greater decay beyond the Rockies. The milieu is convincingly evoked as the film sinks deeper into a lake of beer enclosed in a bubble of leather.

For all that, there is little sense of Nichols connecting emotionally, sexually or spiritually with this world. Still images promise a degree of homoeroticism, but anyone looking for shades of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising is in for a disappointment. The film is even-handedly asexual in its dealings with its many men and its two or three women.

Nichols also seems to be consciously resisting the temptation to ramp up the rock as the riders hit open road. The tracks are there all right – I Feel Free by Cream, Down on the Street by The Stooges, Baby Please Don’t Go by Them – but they are mixed too low to invite any pounding of the air. It’s as if he is afraid of falling for the hollow allure of cheap tribalism. Maybe a little too afraid for those expecting Easy Rider (a film explicitly referenced).

Nichols does, nonetheless, give into the elegiac as the film crests the 1970s and the white-bread United States – almost entirely unobserved here – reasserts its hold on popular culture. Most contemporary westerns end up mourning a vanished era of compromised freedom. The Bikeriders doesn’t quite believe in that myth, but it still finds time to dampen a handkerchief as its shadow recedes. A flawed, fascinating film.

The Bikeriders is in cinemas from Friday, June 21st

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist