AFI FEST 2023 REVIEW! Over the last decade, Jeff Nichols has established himself as one of the most talented cinematic auteurs working today. His filmography is eclectic, ranging from science fiction (Take Shelter) to thriller (Mud) to racially charged period drama (Loving). No matter the genre, his signatures are always evident: deeply nuanced characters, a keen sense of pacing, a meditative undertone, and a throwback visual style (he mainly shoots on film). He now embraces the throwback with The Bikeriders, an exuberant, lively piece with traces of Scorsese, Tarantino, Mann, and a plethora of 1960s and 1970s filmmakers – yet, at its heart, it’s all Nichols.
Inspired by Danny Lyon’s book of the same name – a journal of black-and-white photos of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club and interviews with the bikers – the film traces the rise of such a club through the eyes of the wife of one of its members. When Kathy (Jodie Comer) meets uber-cool biker Benny (Austin Butler), it’s love at first sight. The problem is Benny’s boss and club honcho, Johnny (Tom Hardy), seems to love him just as much. Although she’s intrigued by the bikers’ lifestyle – the freedom, the camaraderie, the roar of the engines, even the fights – Kathy soon starts to fear for Benny’s life. As the club’s influence spreads and the amount of nationwide “affiliates” rises, it morphs into a more violent criminal enterprise.
“When Kathy meets uber-cool biker Benny, it’s love at first sight. The problem is Benny’s boss and club honcho, Johnny, seems to love him just as much.”
Unlike his previous features, which were more personal and intimate, The Bikeriders is a real crowd-pleaser. The writer-director speeds things up and broadens his scope, focusing on multiple characters and plotlines, as well as an extended time period, with aplomb. Sure, neither the approach he adopts nor the plot may be all that novel, but it’s entertaining as hell. Nichols peppers the narrative with a slew of edge-of-your-seat sequences, including a tense fight between Johnny and a man twice his size and a scene when Benny’s foot is snapped in half. But he also remembers to imbue the proceedings with his signature lyricism, most of it courtesy of the central love triangle.
The actors add a generous dose of heart and humor to the proceedings. Comer once again proves her chops with a nuanced performance. Her character – “the wife” – usually gets mishandled in films like this, serving only as fodder for the male protagonist. But the director wisely makes her the focal point, and she exudes endless charisma. Butler is playing a part that is, per the filmmaker’s admission, more of an empty vessel. The actor gives a deceptively simple performance, allowing us to glimpse the deep currents running beneath the cool, stoic exterior. Nichols’ regular Michael Shannon, Boyd Holbrook, and Norman Reedus provide stellar support. But this is Hardy’s show, all the way; he absolutely owns the role, stealing scenes with ease.
Nichols carefully avoids either demonizing or overly romanticizing his protagonists’ lifestyles. He portrays events just the way he imagines they would unfold. I was honored to chat with the filmmaker after the screening and was deeply impressed by how relatable and down-to-earth the man is. The fact that features as cool as The Bikeriders, as romantic as Mud, or as claustrophobic and tense as Take Shelter all come out of this modest man’s mind is astonishing. Here’s to more from the great filmmaker and to more filmmakers like him.
The Bikeriders screened at the 2023 AFI Fest.
"…avoids either demonizing or overly romanticizing his protagonists’ lifestyles."