‘The Bikeriders’ review: Austin Butler and Jodie Comer headline Jeff Nichols’ version of ‘Goodfellas’


Writer/director Jeff Nichols has forged his reputation on acclaimed character dramas, like the cryptic Take Shelter, the moody Mud, and the haunting sci-fi offering Midnight Special. In his latest, The Bikeriders, there’s plenty of focus on the characters, but the vibe is old-school Scorsese. It makes for a mix that is amusing and a bit maddening — but maybe that’s the point? 

A star-stuffed cast brings The Bikeriders to life. Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, and Norman Reedus play characters inspired by the people featured in Danny Lyon’s 1967 book The Bikeriders. As a sort of precursor to the New Journalism movement, à la Hunter S. Thompson and his famous study of the Hells Angels, Lyon photographed and interviewed members of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club (of which he was a part) from the years 1963 to 1967. While this might sound a bit dry or cerebral, Nichols’ script is resplendent with attitude, angst, and raw emotion — even when his characters are too macho to express them. 

The Bikeriders follows bikers, violent and aimless.

Jodie Comer and Austin Butler fall in love in "The Bikeriders."

Jodie Comer and Austin Butler fall in love in “The Bikeriders.”
Credit: Focus Features

The story ostensibly centers on the Vandals MC, a Chicago-based motorcycle gang led by Johnny (Hardy), a blue-collar family man with dreams of being Brando in The Wild One. This is not a subtle allusion. Nichols presents Johnny watching the movie on a modest black-and-white TV, repeating a classic line to make it his own. When The Wild One asks, “What are you rebelling against?” Brando’s biker says with a shrug, “Whadda ya got?” 

Following this example, Johnny quickly becomes an idol to young Midwestern rebels without a cause, which includes Benny (Butler), a baby-faced punk who’ll start a fight and take a beating with equal pride. While a scrawny Faist plays Danny, the smug photographer, the likes of Reedus, Shannon, and Boyd Holbrook portray other bikers, all degrees of greasy and rugged. And they make a remarkable pack. Yet for all the men who make up the ensemble of this movie, The Bikeriders’ voice is its female lead: Benny’s conflicted girlfriend turned wife, Kathy (Comer). 

Jodie Comer brings Goodfellas energy to The Bikeriders.

The framing device of the film is Lyon’s book, making way for the photojournalist to not only get up close to these gruff characters but also allowing for Kathy’s defining voiceover through interviews. Flashback scenes offer insights into Johnny and Benny’s memories outside of her purview, but neither man has the inner awareness to express his motivations or deepest yearnings aloud to Danny — much less with the panache of a pissed-off Kathy. 

Comer, laying on a thick Midwestern accent that’d be well-suited to Roseanne, embodies a femininity captured in Scorsese movies: the tough broad who may have been raised a good girl, but can’t deny her attraction to bad boys. Kathy would fit in nicely with the mob wives of Goodfellas and Casino, well-aware of her husband’s business but nonetheless annoyed at his hubris and brushes with the law. “I thought I could change him, you know?” she asks, and yeah, we know.

Always a bit of an outsider to this male-centric crew, Kathy is both enchanted and repulsed by the Vandals’ scandals. Her ire and care are clear in a complicated portrayal, grounded by her insightful voiceover. She gives the film a self-awareness and a sense of dread, as surely these reckless men chasing thrills and freedom are doomed by their own arrogance. Kathy is both their loving historian and horrified witness, close not only to Benny’s hot rod but also his broken body when times are really rough. 

But there’s an arguable downside to the sheer star power of Comer’s performance. As Kathy, she is so captivating, sharply funny, and keenly perceptive that all the menfolk around her fall a bit flat. 

Tom Hardy and Michael Shannon shine. 

Tom Hardy and Austin Butler are in the same gang in "The Bikeriders."

Tom Hardy and Austin Butler are in the same gang in “The Bikeriders.”
Credit: Focus Features

Storywise, it makes sense that the men of the Vandals wouldn’t be as outspoken as Kathy, who’s defined from the start as a dynamo with a mouth on her. Instead, Nichols relies on scenes of macho face-offs, violence, and posturing to speak for them. At times, this works superbly. For instance, Shannon, who’s headlined several Nichols’ films including Take Shelter, has a brief but staunch role, imbued with the character actor’s signature intensity. He has little do onscreen, but even in a peaceful tableau — meant to mimic the compositions in Lyon’s seminal photo book — there’s a volatility to Shannon’s energy that defines his biker in an instant. 

Hardy likewise thrives, perhaps in part to his cultural context. The English actor has played a wide array of badasses, from the titular theatrical criminal in Bronson, to the unintelligible and burly Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max himself in Mad Max: Fury Road, cocky Eddy Brock and his bizarre symbiote buddy in Venom, and so on. Essentially, if you’re remotely familiar with Hardy’s work, the moment you see him in that leather jacket and slight snarl, you know to expect one tough customer. 

To his credit, Hardy doesn’t use this persona to cakewalk into Johnny. Instead, he savors the American accent with its lazy tongue and nasal growl. There’s an easy pleasure in his depiction of the American archetype, familiar yet not stale. His Johnny echoes Brando’s smartly and thoroughly, offering audiences a romance of revolt and rashness that is timeless in its intoxication. However, Butler can’t peg down Benny in the same way, perhaps because he has less of a defined persona to date, given that his two biggest recent roles were his lacking Elvis impersonation and his chaotic Dune: Part Two villain.

Austin Butler fizzles.

Jodie Comer is interviewed by Mike Faist in "The Bikeriders."

Jodie Comer is interviewed by Mike Faist in “The Bikeriders.”
Credit: Focus Features

Benny, pretty and seemingly damned to a bad end, recalls James Dean with his slicked-back hair and devil-may-care sensuality. It’s easy to see why Kathy falls for him. But as the film progresses, it’s harder to understand why she stays with him. While Butler suffuses his tough guy with a tenderness that shines from his puppy-dog eyes, his depiction feels shallow next to his more seasoned co-stars. When The Bikeriders leans on Butler, its verve falls flat. He’s got the look but lacks the depth needed to flesh out this tall, dark, and silent anti-hero. 

And yet, as I reflect on The Bikeriders, I wonder if the the emotional shallowness of its men, who while often compelling can be vexingly juvenile, is precisely Nichols’ point. These are not self-mythologizing gangsters in the vein of Henry Hill. They have the egos, but not the imagination for that. These are men of a moment, who live and die in that moment. Though we might predict what comes next, we — like Kathy — hope for better. Maybe Nichols intends for us to be frustrated, yearning to slap these dudes Cher-style with a deft “Snap out of it!” (It’s easy to imagine Kathy cackling at such an event.) 

Perhaps the problem is not The Bikeriders‘ seeming unwieldiness, but that my affection for Goodfellas is so ardent that any movie brushing up against its spirit feels deficient.

Taken for the whole of what it is — and not compared to the films that clearly influenced it — The Bikeriders delivers a mindfully realized portrait of American masculinity and its limitations. Left on their own, these men might have been enigmatic snapshots of bikers lost to time and tragedy. But through Nichols’ creation of Kathy, they are given a depth and complexity laced with humor, heartache, and ragged empathy. In the end, these performances and perspective makes for a movie that is distinctly American, defiantly Nichols, and a damn great watch. 

The Bikeriders opens only in theaters June 21. 

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