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  • Nate Lemann


Updated: Jul 16

Jeff Nichols 1960s period piece, based on the photo-novel of the same name, is a crime saga that aims to be a new generation’s “Goodfellas” but is too intimate to have that same sweeping epic feel of that 1990 classic.

by Nate Lemann

Austin Butler in "The Bikeriders"
Austin Butler in "The Bikeriders"

Jeff Nichols has adapted Danny Lyon’s famed photo-novel following a 1960s, Chicago-based motorcycle gang into a sprawling life-of-crime epic, much in the same vain of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece “Goodfellas”. At the center of the story is Austin Butler’s Benny, the coolest motherf***er you’ve ever laid your eyes on. Benny is the epitome of this 1960s counterculture cool: a man of few words but all action, never leaving his buddies to fight a battle alone. We open on him being told to lose his gang colors but stoically refusing to remove them. The fight that ensues is as brutal as they come. 

That is where we hard cut to Mike Faist’s Danny (the book’s author) interviewing the wives of the gang members in a laundromat. His subject of choice is Benny’s old lady, Kathy (Jodie Comer). Comer (and Emory Cohen’s “Cockroach”) have probably the most authentic Chicago accents and sensibilities of the film but they are also Fargo-esq parodies, with her accent taking a bit of getting used to. Comer is our narrator of this world, serving as its outsider's view of the quite wild and uninhibited biker gang. At its head is Johnny (Tom Hardy), who is pretty much doing a middle-aged Brando performance here (which is practically telegraphed in the film as he comes up with the idea for the gang watching “The Wild One”). Johnny is a truck driver with a stable home life but holding a beast inside himself that is itching to come out. So he starts the Vandals and we watch as this gang goes from a weekend racing crew to a way of life small crime organization that is so feared by civilians and cops alike that they can burn down a whole building in broad daylight and no one will stand in their way (not evening putting out the fire). The shot of Hardy standing in front of this unholy bonfire and his boys riding around on their bikes is like watching a pack of wolves circle a helpless prey. 

Like wolves, these men are fiercely loyal to their own kind. The gang includes what may become one of the greatest collections of “that guys” ever assembled: Damon Herriman is Burcie, Johnny’s Lt. and a figure so tragic in his outsiderness from his own family. Emory Cohen is the lovable doofus Cockroach, playing this guy with such humor and warm-hearted decency. Michael Shannon is the crazed Zipco, a real wildcard of a person and so clearly looking for a place he can belong to that this gang clearly means more to him than he lets on. Beau Knapp and Karl Glusman are Wahoo and Corky, two goofballs that the actors and Nichols paint with enough personality that they don’t just feel like hangers-on and their ultimate journey has some real legs to it. The two exceptional standout amongst the crew, though, are Boyd Holbrook’s Cal and Norman Reedus’s Funny Sonny: Holbrook is someone I’ve bought stock in a while back and I feel confident to more than double-down on that following his turn here. He feels like the true beatnik poet of the group, a California kid out in the Midwest with the coolest looking earring you’ve ever seen. He has a gentle and thoughtfulness about bikes that feels like he’s spiritually merged with his vehicle of choice. To him bikes aren’t a hobby: it’s his higher calling. He gives what could’ve been just another background goon so much tenderness that you can’t help but feel he is the idea of a motorcyclist philosopher come to life. Reedus, on the other hand isn’t a deep thinker but is the ultimate good-time, wild one that “Easy Rider” was trying to capture (a point that will become much literal as the film goes on). He could’ve easily leaned into his biker persona he’s cultivated for years in “The Walking Dead” universe and on his docuseries biker show. Instead, with help of some amazing makeup and fake teeth, he makes a character who can can go from fun-loving Charlie to downright terrifying in a moment’s notice. A truly great creation of Nichols.

As the years go on and the crew grows, things begin to get unwieldy and Johnny and Kathy battle for Benny’s soul. Johnny needs Benny’s help to wrangle these men in but Kathy, after one-too-many close calls for Benny, wants him to hang up his jacket and leave the life behind. Benny doesn’t really want either and the movie becomes a story about what happens when the thing you create begins to have a mind of its own. Toby Wallace (as a character only known as “The Kid”) represents this unwieldy element and after a great turn in last year’s “The Royal Hotel” (and a not as good one in “Finestkind”), really plays a force of menace and destruction so well. You will utterly despise him but feel for the kid who really had no other choice but to be a bastard to survive. 

The three leads are very good. After getting use to Comer’s accent, you really get to see a woman who doesn’t take much shit but can’t quit her man, even with all the shit the club puts them through. Hardy is pretty captivating and for all his darker inclinations and actions in this film, is ultimately a good man who is slowly losing control of this creation he so utterly was in love with once. 

As for Butler, “Elvis” announced him as a major new lead for Hollywood. “Dune 2” announced he has the acting chops and talent to take on any role. This movie, announces him as goddamn movie star. The comparisons that come to mind are McQueen in “The Great Escape”, Newman in “Cool Hand Luke”, and Pitt in “Fight Club”. He has very few lines in this flick but he is seductive in how he carries himself, the object of everyone’s attention and as Johnny says, the ideal that all these gang members are hoping to become: the rebel without a cause or a care in the world. A man who doesn’t want power or restrictions: he just wants to be free and ride.

That said, the framing with Faist and Comer is bit disjointed and hard to follow which time period we find Kathy and the gang in from moment to moment. With Kathy’s views being the main voiceover and point of view we see the story through, we lose the dynamism that made the dueling voiceovers in “Goodfellas” so entertaining: we have the worried spouse view but are missing inner life from the gang that made this life so attractive to them (Henry’s narration in “Goodfellas” is what helps us come to love their world, even as things get grim at times). While Butler’s character may be a man of too few words to accomplish this (though I would have loved to hear him wax poetically on why riding makes him feel so free - like Cal’s brief interview with Danny does), Hardy could’ve maybe been that counterpoint to Kathy’s narration (or even better, have Cal be the one we hear narrate a life in the day of a Vandal).  

The other thing that holds this back form reaching that “Goodfellas” level is the more intimate style of Nichols direction. He has been one of my favorite filmmakers to come out of the U.S. for some time but his style has always been quieter and more contemplative. His story has a more tragic tone that feels woven throughout the film, whereas Scorsese really had a more bombastic style and joyful tone, even during the darker parts of that tale. 

This is still one of the best films of the year so far. I have had this on my radar well before its premiere at last year’s film festivals, and this film did not disappoint. It's a ponderous reflection about living life on your own terms and on the outside of normal society. It’s also a tragedy about what happens when the safe place you create for yourself grows beyond your control; t is an inevitability that our characters have to reckon with in a profound way. That and the final shot of this movie will stay with me for a long time. See this in theaters if you can. We need more original dramas of this caliber in our movie culture now.  


FINAL RATING: 4.5/5 (Epic crime saga made with heart and humor)

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Hi! I'm Nate and I love to talk all things movies. I'll be posting new reviews, recent rewatches, and much more on this site. So come on and let's talk movies! 

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