Jeff Nichols’s The Bikeriders coasts on Austin Butler’s outlaw charm and an excellent performance from Tom Hardy. But neither can get this nostalgia piece into third gear.

Austin Butler smokes a cigarette as Benny in The Bikeriders. (Focus Features / Youtube)

The Bikeriders is about a 1960s motorcycle club that transforms over the course of roughly ten years into a criminal gang. Directed by Jeff Nichols (Loving, Mud, Midnight Special), it’s based on a 1968 book of photography by Danny Lyon. Lyon had been the photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), participating in the civil rights movement, and in a lifetime of immersing himself in movements as a photojournalist, he also covered the 2011 Occupy movement “from the inside.” But in 1963 he began documenting the lives of Chicago’s Outlaws Motorcycle Club. Lyon’s love for his fellow club/gang members is illustrated in a series of affectionate photos from his book that appear at the end as the credits roll.

The film seems to be going for the same affectionate view of the fictionalized Chicago Vandals MC, but it loses a lot of the bracing, rough-edged, often humorous quality of the photos in favor of a romantic worship of key members of the club/gang, which veers toward the ludicrous. Stars Tom Hardy and Austin Butler (the heartthrob from Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis) are particularly revered as Johnny and Benny, the most charismatic club/gang leaders whose bond drifts from vaguely father-son to sexually charged codependence.

The third corner of the central love triangle is occupied by Jodie Comer, as Kathy, the luckless woman who falls in love at first sight with absurdly handsome Benny and marries him in spite of his emotional remoteness and single-minded obsession with motorcycles. She’s the disenchanted observer who narrates in an effortful “dese, dem, and dose guys” accent a series of flashbacks about a tough but provincial bunch of working-class locals who just want to ride around experiencing the illusion of freedom but, as their biker popularity and influence expands, descend into increasingly nasty violence.

Mike Faist plays the Danny Lyon part, a sadly passive role that gives him nothing to do but take photos and ask questions and arch his eyebrows quizzically at the answers.

Having Kathy narrate the film is a canny move, in that it suggests a critical take on these guys and their “club” that isn’t really borne out by the insistently romanticizing narrative. Danny Lyon admitted he romanticized the bikers too, but his disillusionment was in far harsher terms than the film ever provides:

I was kind of horrified by the end. I remember I had a big disagreement with this guy who rolled out a huge Nazi flag as a picnic rug to put our beers on. By then I had realized that some of these guys were not so romantic after all. Then, when there was a race riot in Chicago, these big macho guys were scared to leave the club house in case they would be attacked by black people. I just thought it was laughable.

That’s what’s missing in this oddly inert film. It just goes on worshipping these guys throughout, with Adam Stone’s cinematography permanently set on admiring soft focus, especially whenever it’s aimed at Butler’s character. Butler is at a stage in his career that’s reminiscent of the young Brad Pitt in his early heartthrob years, starring in inane fare like Legends of the Fall (1994) and Meet Joe Black (1998). Pitt used to lower his head and peek up through the artfully coiffed blonde hair falling over his brow in exactly the same way Butler does now. Pitt grew out of that stage and over the years has attained a certain humorous grace about his ridiculous good looks. Let’s hope Butler can manage to do the same.

No matter how insistently Kathy claims these Vandals are almost all “bums” with no jobs who hang around in bars much of the time, attended by women in beehive hairdos, besotted by them no matter how badly they’re treated, we watch her doing the same thing, apparently helpless to extricate herself. The night she meets Benny, she’s full of disapproval of the leather-clad guys eyeing her menacingly at the bar. She’s followed outside by about ten of them, who all circle her with what sure looks like bad intentions, before Benny rescues her and whisks her away on his motorcycle.

Johnny later assures her that nothing would’ve happened: “They all just want to go out with you.”

But it sure looked like a gang rape waiting to happen. And so when years later she’s attacked by a mob of men at a party — by the supposedly more violent and depraved younger men joining the club and turning it into a gang — it doesn’t look like a dramatic change in the nature of the Vandals’ partying. It looks like business as usual with a slightly darker spin on it.

There are hints at the hollow stupidity of a lot of this macho strutting, and indications of the feeble conservative ideology underlying all the biker guff about outlaw “freedom.” Michael Shannon, who’s very good as Zipco, sporting shaggy hair, rotten teeth, and lugubrious self-pity, tells a long story about his desperate desire to join the service so he could fight in the Vietnam War, describing how he cried when he was rejected for being an undesirable type. And Cockroach (Emory Cohen) sees no contradiction in shifting gears from membership in the Chicago Vandals to a career as a motorcycle cop.

Nevertheless, I watched The Bikeriders with one unchanging thought: I am so sick of this shit.

It probably didn’t help that the previews at the screening were advertising nostalgic films solemnly celebrating honor culture among old-timey white guys, with Kevin Costner’s Horizon: An American Saga as exhibit A. You know the kind of shit I mean. There has to be, for example, a fight scene in which an apparently overmatched hero stands off lesser mortals with nothing but his awesome courage and fortitudinous badassery to see him through. So there’s paunchy old Costner fighting younger men who dare to suggest they might take his gun away from him. And in Bikeriders, there’s middle-aged Johnny, always ready when challenged by younger gang members to ask with absolute fearless indifference, “Fists or knives?”

Admittedly, Tom Hardy sells this a lot better than that ham Costner. Good actor, Hardy. His soft, high-pitched voice as Johnny, contrasting his bullheaded, blocky body, nicely represents the character’s contradictions, and his increasing ruthlessness only has the effect of making him quieter and more laconic. The pauses between the few words he utters get so long that by the end of the film, you could drive trucks through them.

Butler’s Benny is the far more annoying antihero. He withstands physical punishment that would kill ordinary humans because he’s just that cool. The film starts with a saloon standoff that’s evokes old Westerns, with two toughs confronting Benny about wearing gang “colors” in the bar. They demand that he remove his jacket. “You’ll have to kill me to get this jacket off,” he says.

So they try. A shovel swung full force to the back of the head, held in freeze frame, will fail to do the job.

It’s Hardy who really brings the homoerotic desire to a late-night showdown between Johnny and Benny, when Johnny tries a combination of strong-arm coercion and pleading to get Benny to help him run the out-of-control Vandals. Their two shadowy forms blend in darkness, close enough to kiss, and for a minute, it seems like the film is really going to go someplace interesting. Maybe it’ll turn out there’s a compelling reason why Benny has been so disaffected all this time, and why his love story with Kathy is so pallid and unmoving?

But don’t get your hopes up. The Bikeriders is a film that really doesn’t go anyplace.


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