de facto film reviews 3 stars

Director Jeff Nichols has not released a film in eight years. His previous film Loving, was a portrayal of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose marriage led to the historical Supreme Court ruling that nationally legalized interracial marriage. It was a quiet and low-key film that went on to garner an Oscar nomination for star Ruth Negga. Earlier that year saw the release of his splendid sci-fi thriller Midnight Special, which came and went with little fanfare. Fast-forward to today, his latest film, a period drama chronicling the rise and fall of a biker club, comes after a sizable delay after the original studio, 20th Century Studios, dumped the project merely a month before release. Now that it’s finally here, Nichols’ latest is a solid film, one that often flirts with greatness.

Courtesy Focus Features

Based on the 1968 book by photojournalist Danny Lyon (portrayed by Challengers star Mike Faist), The Bikeriders follows the rise of a midwestern Motorcycle club, the Vandals, throughout the late 60’s and early 70’s. We’re introduced to the world of the Vandals through a series of interviews between Lyon and Kathy (Jodie Comer), who is married to soft spoken loner Benny (Austin Butler). The club is run by leader Johnny (Tom Hardy), a truck driver and family man who would rather spend time with his newfound family than his own. Through a nonlinear narrative, we get to see the rise of the club and how they navigated life on their own accord, before feeling the rise of late 60’s counterculture, eventually succumbing to gang activity. Johnny, who gets the idea to start the club after watching Marlon Brando in the 1953 film The Wild One, seeks to bring Benny in as his heir to run the club, while Kathy hopes to get him to leave the Vandals.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols vividly realizes this specific period of time. Nichols, who has always retained a classical style of filmmaking, captures the spirit of the 60’s down to specific framing and of course, lived-in costume and production detail. To tell this story of the Vandalas, the narrative takes heavy influence from Scorsese classics such as Goodfellas and Mean Streets, with plenty of voiceover and character introductions by the characters themselves. However, the pulpy window-dressing tonally feels more in line with Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless or even Coppola’s The Outsiders. The Bikeriders is at its best when Nichols studies the mundanity of the club’s everyday life. Particularly, the first hour is often exhilarating in its presentation of the lifestyle of the club members and their founding figures. The bikers have no true aspirations, they live to ride aimlessly across the American Midwest on their own terms. They squabble with rival gangs and subsequently hang out and share a beer with each other afterwards. It isn’t until Benny suffers a nasty injury at the hands of a rival gang that Johnny begins to turn to vengeance and begins acting like a quasi-gangster. When Nichols decides to ditch the vérité style of storytelling and pivots towards conventional plot mechanics is where the film loses its power.

Nichols subtly delves into how these haunted, lonely men found solace in this rebellious club. The Vandals is more of a weekend hang out place for these men, but we’re never treated to sights of them working their day-to-day jobs. The only thing on their minds is riding and hanging out together. Nichols takes the greater biker iconography and slowly, but elegantly deconstructs it. Kathy is our conduit into this rough-and-tumble world and she’s one of the few who can see through the facade of the hyper-masculine outlaw figure they so desperately try to convey. Jodie Comer enters the frame with this firecracker presence and a midwestern accent so tricky and specific, she’s one of the only modern actors to successfully hone in on it without veering into cartoonish territory. She’s able to go from a deer-in-the-headlights introduction to the Vandals main bar, to being able to tell off the bumming bikers lounging around on her sofa in a seemingly quick and believable flash.

Courtesy Focus Features

Nichols relies heavily on the swagger of his cast to be able to sell the Vandals thick sense of camaraderie. Austin Butler’s Benny, the soulful  James Dean archetype is breathlessly inhabited by the Oscar-nominated actor. Right from the opening scene, it feels as though Butler has wandered off the set of a film from the mid-60’s. Benny is a character that doesn’t have much to say verbally, but speaks through his actions. He’ll often be the first to throw hands in a fight and the last to question why. When he first meets Kathy, he drives her home to her lame duck boyfriend, only to park his bike across the street from her house and stay positioned overnight until she welcomes him in. It’s a character, and a performance, that sizzles with cool.

Tom Hardy, one of our great commanding performers, is once again excellent here. Johnny is initially a tough, but welcoming leader. He willingly takes on challenges, which consists of a simple question “fists or knives?”, looks out for his own and aims for the Vandals to be something of a safe haven for similarly-minded rebels. However, it’s clear once the years go on and the club grows, his grasp on running things efficiently significantly deteriorates, attempting to keep a handle on the troublemaking newcomers of the group and keeping his own aspirations in check. It’s a performance that clearly echoes Brando, serving as a reflection of the character’s artifice. An intimate exchange between Hardy and Butler is secretly the year’s most intoxicating sequence.

Nichols enlists a terrific array of supporting character actors, all of whom are given fairly meaty roles. Damon Herriman (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Nightingale) is Brucie, Johnny’s loyal right-hand man. Filling out other important roles in the ensemble are Boyd Holbrook (Logan, Run All Night) as Cal, Beau Knapp (The Nice Guys, Destroyer) is Wahoo, Emory Cohen (The Place Beyond the Pines, Brooklyn) is Cockroach, Karl Glusman (The Neon Demon, Watcher) is Corky and Happy Anderson (The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, Bad Boys For Life) is Big Jack. Nichols’ muse Michael Shannon is Zipco, a character that has no more than two or three scenes, but Shannon hijacks every one of them; delving into his melancholic background and his specific hatred of “pinkos”. An unrecognizable Norman Reedus pops in for a handful of scenes as Funny Sonny, a grimey biker from the West Coast.

Courtesy Focus Features

The Bikeriders is a good film — quite good, actually — that occasionally flirts with greatness. Once Nichols rests on traditional story trappings, the film slowly runs out of gas. Thankfully, the cast and filmmaking is so strong and so evocative of the era it’s portraying, the film never loses its sense of authenticity.

The Bikeriders is now playing in theaters.