"You can give all you got to a thing and it's still just gonna do what it's gonna do."
The line, from Tom Hardy's Johnny in The Bikeriders, could also be an apt description of filmmaking — sometimes no amount of fervent directorial passion, big swing performances, and potent cinematography can make a consistent whole.
That's the case with The Bikeriders, the latest film from Jeff Nichols (Loving, Take Shelter), who wrote and directed this 1960s-set drama about the rise and fall of a Midwestern motorcycle gang. Johnny (Hardy), a truck driver and family man, decides to form a motorcycle club after watching Marlon Brando in The Wild One on television. The club, named the Vandals, draws friends and drifters alike, from the perpetually soused Zipco (Nichols' frequent collaborator Michael Shannon) to chop shop master Cal (Boyd Holbrook) to the rebel without a cause, Benny (Austin Butler). But as their influence expands and draws the attention of a new generation, it transforms into something far beyond Johnny's control.
This tale is framed (and intersected) with interviews, as Danny (West Side Story's Mike Faist in a role that squanders his sizable talents) takes photographs and questions Kathy (Jodie Comer), Benny's long-suffering wife.
Kyle Kaplan Austin Butler in 'The Bikeriders'
There's a lot to love in The Bikeriders, a film that feels like it borrows more from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than The Wild One or Easy Rider. Nichols has merely replaced outlaws with bikers, but they're still ultimately guys clutching desperately at identity and a version of masculinity that is quickly slipping through their fingers.
Though the panoply of accents the actors choose could easily fill out a Midwestern grocery store checkout line, there's not a performance here that isn't admirable for its sheer chutzpah. Nichols has assembled an estimable ensemble, and they bring to life the antics and erratic violence of their characters with great authenticity. Tom Hardy looks every bit the gang leader with his hulking frame and pugilist pout, all belied by the high-pitched, nearly girlish vocal cadence he adopts which veers into Brando territory. It's that contradiction that embodies Johnny's unpredictability and his susceptibility to those who seek to subvert the original intentions of his club.
If anyone still had any doubts as to whether Austin Butler was a bonafide movie star after last year's Elvis, his performance in The Bikeriders should clear that up. He's not given a tremendous amount to work with — Benny is a laconic guy who loves the thrill of riding a bike more than anything, but we never get to dig much beneath the surface. Yet, Butler instills him with a mercurial, chaotic energy that threatens to run the proceedings of the Vandals off the road at any moment. Nichols and his cinematographer, Adam Stone, prefer we look at Benny rather than trying to understand him — and they frame him so we can savor every smirking smile, every knowing pout (yes, more pouting), and every suggestively lazy cigarette dangling from his mouth.
But it's Emmy and Tony winner Jodie Comer who handily rides off with the movie. As Kathy, she's all puckered vowels and spritely sarcasm. From the moment she meets Benny, she's got his number — but that doesn't stop her from falling for him. Comer plays Kathy with internalized exasperation, as if she constantly can't believe how stupid she is for loving Benny so much. But she's also a force of nature, one willing to go toe to toe with any who would try to lay claim to Benny over her. Comer may have risen to prominence as a steely English rose, but here she masters Midwestern pluck, killing with kindness and a take-no-bulls--- attitude. Johnny may be the gang leader, but in Comer's hands, Kathy is the true boss.
Kyle Kaplan Jodie Comer, director Jeff Nichols, and Austin Butler on the set of 'The Bikeriders'
There's a romanticism to the film's imagery as well; Stone's lens tracks the leather-clad riders in a way that can only be described as loving objectification. The camera fetishizes their bikes and their yearning to belong as much as the characters do themselves. At times, this can veer into homoeroticism, particularly in the scenes between Hardy and Butler. Are the Vandals about belonging to a group or is the club the only way these men can express their deep love for each other? (I surmise both.) Certainly, Kathy is presented as a rival to Johnny's affection for Benny. If only Nichols had pushed this point even further. But The Bikeriders is a shaggy affair, a scrapbook bursting with intriguing characters and beautiful imagery that never quite gels into a whole.
Speaking at the film's premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Nichols explained how a book of photos of a 1960s motorcycle gang taken by Danny Lyon (whom Nichols dramatizes here) inspired the project. "I wanted to make a film that felt like I did when I saw the photos," he told the audience.
The photographs' precise grasp on time and place, and their aching sensation of a group of misfits searching for connection and meaning is there — but at the end of the day, a collection of pictures doesn't have the same sense of narrative cohesion as a film. In that sense then, Nichols accomplished his goal. The Bikeriders has plenty of open road to explore, but only if you'd like to wander without a destination. Grade: B
The Bikeriders is in theaters Dec. 1.
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