‘The Bikeriders’: Freedom Is Dangerous in Jeff Nichols’ Nostalgic Ode to Motorcycle Gangs

A biker gang rumbles down the street like a windswept idea of outlaw freedom in Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders,” the latest addition to a body of work that is uniquely American. Not in a nationalist, hyper patriotic fashion, but as a series of films that portray life in the United States from corners big movies rarely bother to explore. His characters come from the working class, rural agricultural zones or places where rebellion isn’t a fad. It makes perfect sense Nichols has decided to take on the subject of motorcycle gangs, which in their prime defined the modern image of American outlaws. It’s an immersive snapshot about lives wanting to rebel and the inevitable dangers that come with going off the grid.

Nichols bases his screenplay on Danny Lyon’s 1968 book of the same name, which is a classic photographic record of Lyon’s time with a Chicago motorcycle club. Nichols slightly fictionalizes the material into the story of a ‘60s Midwest club narrated by Kathy (Jodie Comer), who remembers going out to a bar with her friend and meeting Benny (Austin Butler). He’s alluringly dangerous and belongs to the Vandals, a motorcycle club formed by Johnny (Tom Hardy). Early on, the Vandals function like an organization flaunting the freedom of riding their motorcycles into town, decked in their official gear and patches. In a time of conformity, they look like striking outsiders. But rebellion has its own momentum and Kathy tells a journalist following the gang around about their subsequent evolution into something more violent.

“The Bikeriders” is a worthy heir to classics like “The Wild One.” Tom Hardy’s memorable performance is such an obvious nod at Marlon Brando that it’s only proper when Nichols includes a scene of Johnny watching the movie on TV, which is the moment that inspires him to start the Vandals. There is also a clear link here to famous works of journalism such as Hunter S. Thompson’s “Hell’s Angels.” More than a linear narrative, this film works because of the sensation or mood it creates. Nichols’ longtime cinematographer, Adam Stone, again crafts a rich canvas that looks like a grittier take on Norman Rockwell’s visions of small town America. The Vandals coming up a street late at night look like a marauding army and Austin Butler again proves why he was the perfect Elvis in “Elvis,” strutting like he’s right out of a ‘50s movie, except with a starker grit. Looks are essential because Nichols wants us to comprehend the very appeal of rebellious personas. A street kid from an abusive home breaks into some cars with friends. When they see the Vandals pass by, it hits one of them that he wishes he could be that. 

Nichols uses Kathy as the connecting thread for a series of moments that form the overall portrait of a subculture. We learn just enough about the characters and some, like Benny, remain a mystery even when details emerge of his past. What’s more important is the idea that the Vandals attract misfits, bums, the unwanted or those confused in a fast-changing society. Nichols has always sympathized with the renegades. His great 2011 film “Take Shelter” is a masterful fable about a farmer convinced an apocalyptic storm is coming, which of course makes him look insane to everyone else. In 2016 he made the tender “Loving,” about a mixed rural couple who unintentionally led the way to end miscegenation laws in the United States. Nichols’ characters tend to be the ones who don’t parade fancy degrees. They live in the outskirts of town, away from suburbia. “The Bikeriders” is a particular extreme of the idea. Johnny is a truck driver who happens to be a natural leader, but the Vandals soon attract hot heads and traumatized Vietnam War veterans. Fellow Vandal Zipco (Michael Shannon, who has been in every Nichols film) hates “pinkos” who go to college and wishes he could go fight in the war.

A danger in teaching rebellion is that you can’t un-teach it later. The bigger the Vandals get, with chapters sprouting in other states, the more Johnny exercises startling forms of violence. When two dumb bar patrons beat up Benny, Johnny arrives with the iron cavalry and sets the place on fire. Anyone can challenge him for leadership, choosing either knives or fists. Nichols never pretends to ignore the chauvinism as well. Women have no say in how the Vandals are run. They exist as decorations. As the atmosphere grows darker, a near-rape at a party puts in stark clarity the violent misogyny underneath the biker rebel image. Johnny himself is surprisingly a family man, with a job and home. His wife appears only once, sitting on a couch watching TV and not seeming to mind her husband goes out to run a motorcycle club. Benny is the restless soul who finds it difficult to settle down anywhere. He has an invisible link to the Beats, who rebelled against the very notion of post-war America’s conservative image.

Music is key to the mood of this film and Nichols is an expert at needle drops. Instead of dusting off the playlist we hear in so many period films, he elegantly frames the Vandals riding down a highway to Cream’s “I Feel Free” or gives Johnny staring at a burning bar a near-apocalyptic feel with the Staple Singers’ cover of “Masters of War.” Some may complain about character development, yet this is a world where these personalities get stuck in one gear. As the Vandals turn into real vandals, Johnny becomes the equivalent of an aging strongman. It’s a reminder of how in real life, Hell’s Angels head Sonny Barger was constantly compared to Fidel Castro because of his longevity in power. Nichols does give the gang members enough personality where we grow to genuinely like most of them, like Cockroach (Emory Cohen), who raises eyebrows by admitting he’d love to be a motorcycle cop.

A director like Jeff Nichols keeps alive a classic form of American filmmaking that feels fresh again when compared to all the kinetic franchises flooding the market. His characters feel like real people, even when embodying outlaw personas. “The Bikeriders” is almost a good bookend to his excellent 2013 film, “Mud,” where Matthew McConaughey plays a wanted man hiding out on a boat, befriending two local kids from downtrodden homes. These personalities are not seeking to be larger than life. They just are because circumstances keep them away from the shinier version of the American dream. Nichols soberly looks at the darker elements of motorcycle club culture, but there is also an infectious attitude at play that remains alluring because society is always demanding we conform.

The Bikeriders” releases June 21 in theaters nationwide.