The Bikeriders is a stylish, potent film

The film stars Tom Hardy, Austin Butler and Jodie Comer, who manages to wipe the floor with both of them

Bikeriders
Jodie Comer is magnetic as Kathy and Austin Butler outrageously handsome as Benny in The Bikeriders (Kyle Kaplan / © 2024 Focus Features)
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Jeff Nichols’s The Bikeriders is based on the book by photojournalist Danny Lyon, first published in 1968, about his years embedded with a lawless motorcycle gang in Chicago. Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, Loving) has imposed a fictional narrative arc and while it’s bogus in some respects and the arc quite familiar to anyone acquainted with stories about male subcultures — the fatal flaw of loyalty, etc — it is well-crafted, stylish, has some potent scenes and a fantastic cast.

The film stars Tom Hardy, Austin Butler and Jodie Comer, who manages to wipe the floor with both of them. You…

Jeff Nichols’s The Bikeriders is based on the book by photojournalist Danny Lyon, first published in 1968, about his years embedded with a lawless motorcycle gang in Chicago. Nichols (Take ShelterMudLoving) has imposed a fictional narrative arc and while it’s bogus in some respects and the arc quite familiar to anyone acquainted with stories about male subcultures — the fatal flaw of loyalty, etc — it is well-crafted, stylish, has some potent scenes and a fantastic cast.

The film stars Tom Hardy, Austin Butler and Jodie Comer, who manages to wipe the floor with both of them. You may wish to look away from the violence — if you are squeamish I reckon you’ll spend a good 30 percent of the two-hour running time looking down into your lap — but you won’t wish to look away from her.

The book, which is available from Amazon ($30, highly recommended) is divided into two. The first half is made up of the photographs, some of which are cleverly staged within the film, while the second half provides first-hand testimonies of the gang members, as recorded and transcribed by Lyons at the time. These are fascinating, wonderfully evocative and mad. Here’s Cockroach, a biker who eats bugs: “A bug won’t hurt you. It’s nothing but meat. It’s a delicacy, as a matter of fact. I like to eat ’em alive.” It’s like Alan Bennett’s Talking Headshad Alan Bennett ever been a Hell’s Angel, which I’m pretty sure he never was. (I can’t say for certain, but it does not seem likely).

The main characters then and now remain the same. There is Johnny (Hardy), who is the leader, having founded the Outlaws (they are called the Vandals here for some reason) after watching Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Also we have Benny (Butler), a gang member who is James Dean cool as well as taciturn, Clint Eastwood style, and Kathy (Cromer), his wife. It is Kathy who, at one step removed, narrates.

The film kicks off with one of the many explosions of violence when Benny, alone in a bar, is picked off for wearing his “colors.” This is a culture where you’ll knife someone to death, or be knifed to death, rather than ever stand down or make nice. Although The Bikeriders never goes deep, you get the sense this do-or-die machismo offers the gang members a sense of belonging when they have never belonged anywhere else.

This is their tribe, even if Johnny is getting weary and wishes Benny to succeed him while Kathy wants Benny to quit altogether. So it’s a love triangle in a way, told through meets and races and bar rooms and funerals and police chases and knifings and speeding en masse along open roads. Johnny is hardly a stretch for Hardy. Although, to be fair, no one plays these roles better than him. Meanwhile Butler, who is surely the most handsome man that ever lived, doesn’t have to do much more than be handsome. You just have to understand why both Johnny and Kathy fall for him — and you do. But it’s Comer who, in her hurried Chicago twang, brings all this to life. She’s extraordinary. In a flicker of her eye, a twitch of her lips, she can somehow convey all the emotions there are in the world.

On to the bogus part: all the misogyny has been excised. If you read Kathy’s transcript, she states, with the matter-of-fact acceptance of the time, that Benny beats her. There is no suggestion of any of that here because, why? Because these fellas wouldn’t be quite so noble and heroic if it were included? This still worries me. Perhaps, if you wish to fully enjoy this film, you shouldn’t actually read the book.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.