Review: In Adapting a Journalist’s Photo-Book, Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders Creates New Narratives Around Compelling Characters

Rarely has a group of such gifted actors been gathered to tell a story that somehow feels both insightful and shallow, depending on the scene and character. Based on a fantastic book of photography and lengthy captions by Danny Lyon, The Bikeriders' groundbreaking source material is part of the reason the film feels lost at times. There are no clear narratives in the book, but writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Loving) seems to feel that the only way to make this material cinematic is to impose narratives where they didn’t exist, at least not like they do in this movie.

As one would hope, Lyon is actually a character in the film (played by Mike Faist, Challengers, West Side Story), and most of the time we see him, he’s lurking on the outskirts of the Midwestern motorcycle club the Vandals circa 1960s Chicago, camera in hand. We also see him a few years later interviewing some of the major players for his book, especially Kathy (Jodie Comer), who is functionally our narrator, as we see how she got so deep into the Vandals through her passionate relationship with member Benny (Austin Butler, with his throttle fully opened up). Kathy considers these guys full-on repulsive until she meets Benny, who ends up turning her world inside out with his devotion to the club and its leader, Johnny (Tom Hardy), who was inspired to get into motorcycles when he first saw Marlon Brando in The Wild One. But Johnny also has a wife and kids, which makes his experience a bit different than most of his brethren, leaving an entire double-life scenario left unexplored by director Nichols, which may be by design.

Nichols doesn’t seem quite as interested in motivation for his characters as he does immersing us in this culture and the culture of overt masculinity, companionship, and why anyone would be drawn into this life, in all of its good and bad forms. Supporting characters drift in and out of the main stories, including Nichols’ regulars Michael Shannon, Boyd Holbrook, Norman Reedus (because why make a biker movie without him?), and Emory Cohen. The film is more a series of vignettes as told to Lyon, and by the end, all involved are hoping we get something of a complete portrait of the path this club took, from just a group of guys hanging out, drinking and sometimes sparring with rival clubs, to a full-fledged criminal organization, complete with power struggles and mob-style violence. The more specific the film allows the situations and characters to be, the better The Bikeriders is a work of art. But frequently used artificial story constructs do it no favors, weighing the film down in broad strokes and vague character motivations.

I couldn’t help but be pulled through by the meaty acting, especially by Comer, whose Kathy is smart enough to have taken a step back and actually figured out a bit about the group’s dynamic. I’m guessing a lot of people are going to take issue with the fact that a female character is the one to guide us through this decidedly male story and provide some of its best analysis, but Comer is an actor who can do the heavy lifting, and Nichols was wise enough to let her do just that.

As we get deeper into the film, we start to notice things like sound design and Adam Stone’s stunning cinematography, which occasionally attempts to re-create some of Lyon’s original photography, and how Nichols is combining it all to simply place us in the middle of it all, not necessarily through Faist’s version of Lyon, but through the actual book The Bikeriders. It’s a film I found easy to watch, but I could never bring myself to be dazzled by or drawn into it the way I felt was necessary to love it as I do many of Nichols’ other works.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.