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American Iron

A little research tells me a chunk of biker gangs remain involved with the drug trade, weapons dealing, and other criminal activity. Hasn’t it always been that way? Haven’t bikers always been the modern day equivalent of the Mongol hordes, sweeping across the American landscapes like leather-clad locusts? They’re nothing but a bunch of criminals, right? 

Biker gangs originally entered into American culture with Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One. When his character Johnny is asked what he’s rebelling against, he replies, “Whaddaya got?” From there, bikers started the American legend of being the ultimate symbol of freedom. All they had was what they could fit on their cycles. All they needed was a road, a direction. They’re not criminals, they’re rebels, right? Free spirits who can’t be tied down?

Far too many years ago, I read Hunter Thompson’s book, “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.” The epigraph of the book is a translation of the French poem Ballade du concours de Blois, which reads:

In my own country I am in a far-off land

I am strong but have no force or power

I win all yet remain a loser

At break of day I say goodnight

When I lie down I have a great fear

Of falling

There’s a vast chasm of difference between a motorcycle club and a motorcycle gang. Or is there? The poem above makes me think that the similarities are close, too close. Jeff Nichols’ newest film, The Bikeriders, digs into that concept and shows how fast rebellion can shift into criminality and why a club transforms into a gang.

It’s the 1960s. We meet Benny (Austin Butler), a member of the Chicago Vandals motorcycle club. He sits in a bar, quietly nursing a beer, and the only way you’d know he’s a Vandal is by his colors, the patches on his jacket identifying who he rides with. A few burly locals approach Benny, and demand he remove his colors. Benny refuses. A savage ass-whipping ensues.

Some time later, we meet Kathy (Jodie Comer). She’s interviewed by Danny Lyon (Mike Faist), a practitioner of New Journalism, the belief that a journalist must immerse themselves into a story in order to properly tell the story. Danny is a photojournalist, and he wants to create a book about the Vandals. He wants to understand their fairly sunny origins, and how they transformed into a dark reflection.

It all started with Johnny (Tom Hardy), a truck driver with a wife, two daughters, a home, and an ineffable piece missing from his life. Then he sees The Wild One on TV, and the lure of a motorcycle and likeminded men is too strong to resist. Soon the Vandals ranks grow, including the unstable Zipco (Michael Shannon), laid-back Cal (Boyd Holbrook), nearly feral Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), and so many others.

In the beginning, Kathy sees a group of rough around the edges misfits led by Johnny. She sees a leather and denim-clad angel in Benny, and decides the chaos in her life is worth it for the fleeting moments where she holds Benny for dear life as the landscape flashes by. Then the Vandals are joined by a more dangerous breed of man. Then The Kid (Toby Wallace) asks to join, and that’s only the latest rotten domino to fall.

I’m embarrassed to tell you that I’m unfamiliar with Jeff Nichols’ work. I’m certainly aware that he’s got a reputation as a thoughtful and skilled filmmaker, and I’ve meant to watch Midnight Special and Take Shelter for years. But…it hasn’t happened yet.* So while walking into The Bikeriders, I wasn’t sure what I was walking into. For the most part, The Bikeriders has a lot of the jangly energy found in GoodFellas. Nichols shows us the fun of a bunch of dudes racing, hanging out without being hassled by The Man, and driving down the lonely highway, the wind blowing through their hair.** Nichols pairs that energy nicely with a sharp eye toward the granular details of the biker subculture. For example, we learn how critically important it is to personalize one’s bike by installing cobbled together parts and accessories. It’s perhaps the most important marker of identity. Speaking of detail, I liked Nichols’ usage of doo-wop music during approximately the first half. It boosts the romance and the fun of the early days. Then, as things get darker, the soundtrack shifts to harder, guitar-driven 70s rock. It’s a smart choice to use the soundtrack for so much emotional heavy lifting.

Nichols’ screenplay does a nice job of showing rather than telling, for the most part. I liked the love triangle, in which Kathy and Johnny compete for Benny’s affections. I also liked Johnny’s gradual understanding that the club he built is becoming a perpetual motion machine. He no longer can change it or influence it, and perhaps he can’t even hold on. Two of those three characters, the young woman grappling with her attraction to danger, and the older man who’s become weary wearing the crown, are compelling. It’s the character of Benny that’s a little bit of a blank slate. He’s often a rebel in the most general sense of the word, where he reflexively doesn’t want to be Johnny’s second-in-command or tied down to Kathy. I struggled occasionally to figure out what he did want, and I wished the script forced his character to reckon more with the myth of the bikers versus the reality.

Even when they don’t have much screen time, Nichols’ cast is always an indelible collection of loners, outcasts, and straight-up weirdos. Boyd Holbrook’s Cal is the mellow type, a guy who can see philosophy in the gears of his bike. Nichols’ regular Michael Shannon is unpredictable as Zipco. Shannon plays someone who seems like a burnout on the surface, yet he peels back layers and shows us a man desperate to belong. Providing that belonging is Tom Hardy’s Johnny, and while Hardy delivers another silly voice to add to his impressive repertoire, his acting is also as strong as ever. Johnny is charismatic, taciturn, paranoid at times, and ultimately exhausted. Similarly strong is Jodie Comer as Kathy. I have no idea if her Illinois accent is accurate, but it doesn’t matter. Her performance is motormouthed, gutsy, and we believe that this middle-class woman would walk away from her old life for Benny. There’s a little too much of Kathy trying to change Benny, but that’s a script issue as opposed to a performance criticism.

I liked Austin Butler a good bit as Benny, and if movie stars existed any longer, I’d say Butler is rocketing to the top.*** He’s got the physicality, the swagger, the moments of heart, and even a sneaky sense of humor toward the kind of character he’s playing. I wished that the role of Benny was meatier and Butler was given more to do. But what’s a bit strange to me is that a) as inhumanly attractive as Butler and Comer are, they don’t throw off much in the way of sparks and b) Butler and Comer’s relationship is oddly sexless. Do we need things to go as hard as Poor Things? Maybe not, but I never got the sense that these two wanted to tear each other’s clothing off, even when the script tells us they do.

Bikers are large; they contain multitudes. It’s just as accurate to paint them as sociopaths trafficking meth as it is to portray them as freedom loving wanderers. The Bikeriders takes these people seriously, with the good, the bad, and the excruciatingly ugly all on display. It’s a very good film 


*But it will! Soon! Pinky swear!

**Is the wind blowing through your scalp just as intoxicating an experience? As a bald man, I need to know!

***While movie stars aren’t a thing, I’m sure Butler will be doing solid work for a long time. 

Tim Brennan Movie Critic

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.


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