L Movie Review 2

After a long hiatus, writer/director Jeff Nichols returns with The Bikeriders, a brash, sprawling, grubby portrait of a motorcycle club in the late ’60s to early ’70s, a time in American culture when things went from idyllic to ugly in a nanosecond. While some viewers might be turned off by the movie’s lack of plot or character development, Nichols’s brilliant camerawork, propulsive narrative, and tightly wound script subvert any conventional expectations. Unspooling like a grand opera on bad acid and cheap whiskey, his latest isn’t a glorification of biker culture as much as an exploration of the American dream and its glimmering seductions and brutal repercussions. Thematically, the film has more in common with The Great Gatsby than, say, Sons of Anarchy. It’s also a return to form for a director who began his career by dismantling the mystique of blue-collar masculinity in films like Shotgun Stories and Mud, tales of men with dirt under their fingernails and a yearning to break out of their stale environments. Nichols takes this precedent to dizzying heights in this swaggering film, whose pulse never dissipates, consistently seduces, and eventually shows that these leather-clad bikers aren’t merely criminals but seekers of the American Dream — a dream that’s always one stretch of highway out of their reach.

Inspired by Danny Lyon’s 1968 book, The Bikeriders, which compiled a series of photographs of and interviews with a 1960s Illinois motorcycle club, the movie chronicles the life of a fictionalized motorcycle gang called the Vandals, from their innocent start to their austere demise, when hard drugs and lost souls pulled them in unexpected directions. Combining Martin Scorsese’s street-level edge with Bob Rafelson’s dappled naturalism, Nichols immerses us in their lives with a deceptive breeziness before slowly pulling the rug out from underneath us, one stitch at a time. Of course, nobody would give a damn about walking in the Vandals’ boots if Nichols didn’t do such a good job of humanizing them, which is no mean feat. We’re talking about dirty rogues who drink morning, noon, and night, smoke three packs a day, break every traffic law ever written, and brawl like animals (“fists or knives” is their axiom). And yet, like samurais in a Kurosawa epic, they live by a sacred code: They’re allowed to break every law but their own.

The movie’s real surprise is Jodie Comer, who practically steals all the thunder from the boys. The British actress’s turn as Kathy is altogether screwball, abrasive, and vulnerable. With her beehive hairdo and “awe-shucks” Midwestern quirks, Comer narrates the film in a confessional tone as she’s interviewed by Danny (Mike Faist), a callow photographer meant to be author Danny Lyon. Kathy tells him about the time she met Benny (a slick-as-grease Austin Butler), a reclusive biker who’s big on mood and light on talk. Butler is magnetic as a man who harbors a deep-seated darkness that only comes out in moments of impulsive violence. Kathy first spots Benny leaning on a pool table as the room swirls in slow motion. Time stops, like the first time Nick Carraway entered Jay Gatsby’s raucous party and saw the man himself in a white suit: the ultimate dreamer, the quintessential lost soul.

After they get hitched, Kathy realizes that she also married into the Vandals, a group of greasy outcasts piloted by Johnny (a brilliant Tom Hardy), a hardened family man who rules his club with an iron fist and demands Benny’s attention as much as Kathy does. “I used to be respectable,” she quips, before we slowly follow her into a labyrinth of crime, crashes, and compromises.

If it sounds brooding and depressing, it’s not. Although episodic in nature, the whiplash editing and fluid camerawork invigorate what could otherwise be a plodding chronicle. From the first frame, the movie bursts with high-octane energy, rhapsodic humor, and a fully developed personality. One of Nichols’s many tricks in seducing his audience is exploiting the cultural tropes of that era. The late ’60s/early ’70s never looked this cool (well, besides Goodfellas). Lacing the narrative with deep cuts from the Shangri-Las, the Sonics, and the Stooges, Nichols captures a time when freedom was not just a word but a concept that was stretched to its limit. He explores this idea through the film’s acerbic tone and steadfast pace, and also through incredible performances from character actors such as Michael Shannon, Boyd Holbrook, Norman Reedus, and Beau Knapp. And yet, for all the blustering grit and camp, Nichols keeps his vessel steady and balanced, never allowing it to descend into grotesquerie.

As we bear witness to the rise and fall of a club that once represented something pure and homegrown, loyalties are exchanged, power struggles ensue, and a new batch of outsiders insinuate themselves with hard drugs and a peculiar rage. Nichols simply drops us into this entanglement without an ounce of exposition. He wants us to experience paranoia, not have it explained to us; these themes are embedded in the filmmaking, not in dramatic character developments or long speeches. While he keeps us at a distance from the inner lives of his characters, he also keeps us close to their experience, intimately so. Like Scorsese and Altman, or ’90s auteurs such as Gus Van Sant, Nichols works in that lost art of paradox. Although he seemingly venerates the bikers’ raucous lifestyle, glossing it up with excitement and seduction, he’s also deconstructing it, questioning their morality from the inside out, searching for a kernel of truth in the garbage heap.

The Bikeriders is one of the most visually exciting and poignant films of the year. Although some of its themes get lost in the shuffle, Nichols has crafted a rapturous fable that touches on subjects like the tragedy of the American Dream, the loss of innocence in a country gone awry, and the consequences of living on the margins. The film has a ghostly, elusive spirit that lingers in your memory long after the lights go out and the sound of revving engines fades into the distance.

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