Twenty years ago, Jeff Nichols found a book of photographs on his brother’s coffee table about an outlaw motorcycle club that rumbled around the American Midwest during the 1960s, and he immediately recognized it as the coolest fucking thing that he’d ever seen in his entire life — both the book itself, and the people in it.
To watch the greasy-as-hell movie Nichols has now adapted from Danny Lyon’s “The Bikeriders” is to know how he felt in that moment. And to watch that movie stall out after 45 of the most exhilarating and self-possessed minutes that Nichols has ever cut together is to know how he’s struggled to find a story worthy of the dirt-stained denim he’s been dreaming about ever since. As the leader of the Vandals laments about the crew that’s starting to slip away under his feet: “You can give everything you got to a thing and it’s still just gonna do what it’s gonna do.”
But damn if “The Bikeriders” doesn’t do a fine job of memorializing the world that Johnny is about to lose, even if Nichols’ first movie since 2016’s “Midnight Special” eventually forfeits the unique identity that its characters are so desperate to have for themselves.
Of course, it was never all that unique in the first place. Played by a nasal Tom Hardy (still half-stuck in “Capone” but appropriately leading a cast that feels like the Avengers of sexy method weirdos), Johnny only founded the Vandals after seeing Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.” He was already a married Chicago father of two, but some men will truly start a motorcycle club so they can sit in a dank bar all day with guys named Cockroach, Zipco, and Shitty Pete before they go to therapy.
Then again, the desire to be part of something bigger than yourself isn’t exclusive to any gender, and Kathy — a no-nonsense Chicago girl who the chameleonic Jodie Comer sinks her teeth into like a ham-covered deep-dish pizza — can’t help but want to go for a ride once she lays her eyes on the elusive Benny (Austin Butler, all low growls and high cheekbones in a fine performance caught between “Elvis” and “Rumble Fish”). Nichols uses their courtship as a way into this story, and the excellent sequence where Benny just parks his bike outside of Kathy’s house and waits (and waits, and waits) for her boyfriend to give up perfectly captures the siren’s call of belonging. “I’ve had nothing but trouble since I met Benny,” Comer sasses in the opening voiceover of a film that half-commits to its “Goodfellas” pastiche. “It can’t be love — it must be stupidity.”
Well, stupidity can be a pretty magical thing if it’s shared with the right people, and the initial romance between Kathy and Benny generates the kind of frisson that galvanizes the Vandals together, and “The Bikeriders” along with them. This movie is never better than when its motley crew of “undesirable characters” get to bask in the pleasure of each other’s company, whether that means riding in formation along the highways of Illinois or beating the shit out of rival clubs just to affirm their own brotherhood.
Nichols’ cast nails the right mixture of toughness and vulnerability; these guys are all hard as hell (a poor choice of words for a leather-bound movie with so little homoeroticism), but they need each other like a comfort blanket. Nichols regular Michael Shannon is a scary-fun delight as a “Pinko”-hating outcast who feels rejected by his country, Boyd Holbrook brings some breezy charm to his role as the group’s resident mechanic, and Norman Reedus eventually rolls in from California with dirt on his teeth and a dangerous agenda (imagine the dumpster creature from “Mulholland Drive” riding a Harley-Davidson). Meanwhile, the ever-unsubtle Emory Cohen reins things in as a bug-eating Vandal who’s just in it for a laugh.
Putting Cohen and Hardy into the same movie should be like dropping a pack of Mentos into a giant bottle of Coke, but the Vandals feed off their various eccentricities. It balances them out. They’re rebelling against a world that made them feel weird in the first place, and the blind — almost codependent — loyalty that rebellion requires seems like a small price to pay for that kind of bond. That’s certainly what it seems like from the outside, anyway, as the Vandals can’t even ride through town without inspiring a few angry young men to join them (“Babyteeth” breakout Toby Wallace chief among them). But belonging to something can be a dangerous thing, particularly when it doesn’t belong to you.
Johnny and Kathy both learn that lesson in their own ways, as they gradually find themselves engaged in a cold war over Benny’s soul. That isn’t much of a prize. Johnny envies Benny for his pure loyalty and paradoxical lack of attachments, while Kathy just wants Benny, at a certain point, to pick their marriage over the club. Her arc is contextualized through a framing device in which Mike Faist, playing a version of Danny Lyon, interviews her about the Vandals over a period that spans more than a decade, but Lyon’s avatar never really becomes a meaningful part of the story, and his increasingly wistful appearances cheat the movie out of the chance to better dramatize the Vandals’ dissolution.
As a result, the back half of “The Bikeriders” feels — like Johnny — trapped in its own creation. When the Vandals get big enough they’re forced to define who they are, and it’s difficult for any subculture to survive that kind of pressure, let alone one so dependent upon the freedom of making your own rules. The in-fighting starts, “new guys” want to start chapters in other cities, and the Scorsese buzz that fizzes through the movie’s opening stretch gives way to an enervating sense of “what now?”
The singular vibration that Nichols brings to the golden age of motorcycles gives way to the all-too-familiar entropy that ended it, as a movie that busts out of the gate as some kind of new American classic ultimately runs out of gas on the side of the highway. But there’s no denying the Vandals had their day, and it makes for exhilarating stuff no matter how dark things after night falls.
“The Bikeriders” premiered at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. 20th Century Studios will release it in theaters on Friday, December 1.