Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Norman Reedus
Released: July 4, 2024
Grade: B-

The Bikeriders

In 1963, Danny Lyon was a young guy studying for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Chicago.  With a love for both photography and motorcycles, Lyon took a series of pictures which he then shared with Hugh Edwards, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago.  It was Edwards’ idea to turn the images into a book and in 1968, The Bikeriders was first published.  It featured black and white photographs of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club and interviews with members across several years.

To quote Lyon himself, the book was a “total flop” but somehow, enough copies remained in circulation to keep folks talking.  It’s gone through several reiterations since (including a 2014 version which Lyon loves) but it was in 2003 that American writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud) was given a second-hand copy by his younger brother.  Nichols didn’t have much knowledge of “biker culture” but he loved the photographs, the material, and thought it would make for a great movie.

The problem with Nichols’ film is including Lyon as a featured supporting character.  He’s played by Mike Faist (Challengers), one of my favourite actors, but his scenes are a time-wasting distraction which add little.  Instead of watching Lyon take photographs and conduct lengthy interviews on his old-school tape recorder, I’d have preferred to follow the motorcycle club members more closely.  I wanted to “see” things take place (via re-enactment) as opposed to listening to an after-the-fact conversation between two people.

The rest of the movie isn’t too bad and is centred on three key characters.  Johnny (Hardy) is the head of the Chicago Vandals motorcycle club, Benny (Butler) is a likeable member who everyone gets along with, and Kathy (Comer) is Benny’s chatty wife (they got married five weeks after first meeting).  The first two acts delve into the largely positive culture of the club (it was like a Men’s Shed for motorcycle enthusiasts) and the power dynamic between its members.  Benny is described as the loner with “no feelings” but it doesn’t stop others fighting for his attention – Johnny because he considers him a successor, and Kathy because she’s in love and wants to spend her whole life with him.

The final act is the juiciest as the club grows and Johnny starts to lose his grip on power.  It raises interesting questions about whether the club is too big to control, and what level of loyalty is expected (it’s damn hard to quit).  Supporting players with parts to play include Oscar nominee Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) along with Australians Damon Herriman (The Nightingale) and Toby Wallace (Babyteeth). 

I’d have preferred the tension to be ratcheted up early on but if interested in motorcycles and this slice of 1960s American history, The Bikeriders is worth your time.

You can read my chat with star Austin Butler by clicking here.