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21 June 2024

The Bikeriders looks cool – but feels pointless

Jeff Nichols’s study of Sixties biker gang culture is full of beauty, glamour and Austin Butler in a leather jacket. Does it have anything to say?

By Leaf Arbuthnot

A strange torpor envelops The Bikeriders, Jeff Nichols’s study of a Midwestern 1960s motorcycle club. Twice, Tom Hardy – playing Johnny, monosyllabic leader of “the Vandals” – is challenged to a fight. Both times he looks disappointed to be roused from his quiescence, and asks: “Fists or knives?” You sense he doesn’t care either way: his interest in schemes to extend his life is minimal.

The film is inspired by a 1968 book by the photographer Danny Lyon, who spent years embedded in the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, taking members’ pictures and juicing them for anecdotes. Lyon is played by Mike Faist, the Challengers actor who has lately been assigned the internet’s “hot rodent boyfriend”. He appears all too briefly: just as we’ve forgotten that Lyon exists, up he pops with a camera and a microphone. Mainly, he interviews Kathy (Jodie Comer), who insists in a nasal Illinois accent that she was “respectable” before she fell in with the Vandals and married Johnny’s mysterious protégé Benny (Elvis’s Austin Butler).

When Kathy first meets Benny in the club’s bar, he isn’t the venerated bad boy he is to become: other members of the gang disparage him because he’s constantly breaking his motorbike. But Kathy sees something in him – could it possibly be his looks? – and consents to be whisked off for a night of carousing. He deposits her at home in the wee hours of the next day, then waits outside her house until he’s scared off her partner and won her allegiance. Five weeks later, they’re married.

The Bikeriders isn’t big on plot. Much of the film is spent simply hanging out with the dudes, breathing in the fumes of their glowering machines and watching as they get down to manly activities such as drinking, smoking and fighting. Benny turns out to be a particularly natural brawler. At one of the club’s outdoor get-togethers, he defends Johnny in a fight with such zeal he gets a chunk of car window stuck in his hand. Later, he nearly has his foot cut off with a spade for refusing to remove his “colours” – the leather jacket bearing the Vandals’ name – in a bar.

Gradually, other members of the Vandals begin to distinguish themselves: aside from Johnny, there’s also Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), a pleasantly threatening Californian; Zipco (Michael Shannon), who’s hurt because he wasn’t deemed fit to serve in Vietnam; and Cockroach (Emory Cohen), who harbours a cherished ambition to become a cop.

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Spending time with the guys isn’t so bad. They look cool; occasionally they come out with funny lines. They get up to no good but Nichols, who also wrote the script, leaves us in no doubt that their reasons for being in the gang are pure: these are lost boys whose parents were abusive, who long to belong.

But the film can’t dispel an ambient sense of its own pointlessness. Scenes don’t build towards anything, but shuffle decorously by. Comer does inject life into proceedings – unlike Johnny and Benny, she has a sense of humour – but she’s soon left to do what all women do eventually in films like this: plead with her man to stop risking his life, beg him to come home.

The Bikeriders also relies to a ridiculous extent on Butler’s beauty and glamour. The camera frequently sets up shop on his body, registering the exquisite way he clenches his jaw, the lushness of his cherry-coloured lips or the all-American gold of his biceps. The trouble is, Butler’s character is unburdened by personality, and he has a maddening tendency to speak slowly. At one point, he has a semi-showdown with Johnny and growls without irony: “I don’t ask nothing from nobody.” At another, while riding through fields, he howls with exhilaration. No one howls like this, apart from in films.

Hardy is in a similar position. His role is to be brawny, magnetic and pungently male. But he plays the part with so little emotion he seems half-lobotomised, so when the club slips from his control, overrun with younger, rougher members, it’s hard to care.

So far, this hasn’t been a vintage year for cinema. Box-office takings are down; even studios such as Marvel are suffering. The Bikeriders is at least not a sequel; it has a decent cast that turn in decent performances; some of its themes – loneliness, masculinity – feel resonant today. But its characters don’t command loyalty, and it never quite explains why anyone should see it. A flip through the book that inspired it may well offer richer returns.

“The Bikeriders” is in cinemas now

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine