'The Bikeriders' Rides Sidecar on a Scenic Journey Through Changing America

Directed by Jeff Nichols

Starring Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman, Toby Wallace, Norman Reedus

BY Rachel HoPublished Jun 19, 2024


Between 1963 and 1967, photographer Danny Lyon interviewed members of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club and their wives and girlfriends, while also capturing their exploits and quieter moments on film. He compiled the pictures and text into a photography book called The Bikeriders, which became a seminal piece of journalism lifting the lid on a subculture those on the outside knew little about.

Almost 30 years after its original publication, Lyon reintroduced the book in the 1997 edition specifically mentioning that, of all the people he spoke to, Kathy, wife of Outlaw member Benny, turned out to be the best storyteller. Sometimes a part of the story but mostly on the sidelines, Kathy astutely observed the dynamics of the group, relaying her unfiltered thoughts to Lyon.

It's unsurprising, then, that in Jeff Nichols's adaptation of Lyon's book, Kathy (played by a fantastic Jodie Comer) serves as narrator, guiding viewers through not just the four years documented in Lyon's book, but also a fictional arc taking the club into a new America.

In place of the Outlaws, Nichols's The Bikeriders tells the story of the fictional Vandals from 1965 to 1973. Mike Faist as Lyon opens the film by interviewing Kathy in a busy laundromat as she describes her first encounter with the club. In addition to Lyon and Kathy, the film contains characters based on real-life people, namely following Benny (Austin Butler) and Johnny (Tom Hardy), the latter being the president of the club.

While the primary plot centres on Kathy and Benny's relationship, similar to the book, the film takes a wide lens to the Vandals. Some of the members tell their stories verbatim from the interview transcripts, lending a bit of insight into who they are, why they love motorcycles and what brought them to the club. Rather than investigating the people and their backgrounds with a great amount of depth, Nichols takes an arms-length snapshot encapsulating the time and the spirit of this group.

The decision to hold off on becoming a character study pays off, reflecting what made Lyon's book a success in the first place. Undoubtedly the context provided by the interviews is fascinating and grounds the pictures that carry an almost dreamlike quality, as if part of a completely different world. But The Bikeriders' ability to contain such an affecting power is due to Lyon's eye — seeing the club in a way that the world didn't and perhaps even in a way the members themselves didn't either.

Nichols grants the film the same benefit of a less-conversation, more-vibes quality. He extends this narrative choice by using the Vandals as a vehicle to experience the societal and cultural shift America undergoes during this time period. We see the Vandals go from a group of men who simply like riding motorcycles  into an organization that participates in criminal activity and resorts to egregious violence at a moment's notice.

The mental consequences associated with the Vietnam War are afforded a passing nod, but Nichols mostly stops short of pointing a finger at a particular cause. Instead, the director gives way to the changing tides as the natural order of things, which in many ways, rings true to Lyon's mentality: see the people and the circumstances for what they are, rather than tearing them apart to find where the judgment and blame lies.

Given the general divisions rampant in our today's discourse (particularly online), The Bikeriders hits on a nerve that many of us can connect with, in spite of the events of the film occurring half a century ago. By leaving the film as a cinematic portrait, Nichols leaves room for audiences to find themselves among the changing of generational guards, and reinforcing the idea that, across time and space, change will always be inevitable, for better and for worse.

(Focus Features)

Latest Coverage