Skip to main content

14th November 2023

The Bikeriders review: Jeff Nichols’ mythology of the motorcycle gang | LIFF 2023

This chronicle of a fictional motorcycle gang hit Leeds Film Festival to a packed crowd but are its bold stylistic choices ultimately its downfall?
Categories: ,
The Bikeriders review: Jeff Nichols’ mythology of the motorcycle gang | LIFF 2023
Austin Butler as Benny in 20th Century Studios’ THE BIKERIDERS. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Set to popular guitar riffs and snappy vocals, The Bikeriders chronicles the lives of fictional motorcycle gang the Chicago Vandals, intercut by interviews years later telling the story. It simultaneously mythologises and deconstructs its characters in a fascinating way that mixes fact and fiction but ultimately takes the sting out of the film’s drama.

Benny (a captivating Austin Butler) is the young rogue of the gang, a favourite of leader Tommy (Tom Hardy) despite his brash ‘punch first, ask questions later’ approach. What begins as a group of outsiders finding community in motorcycles and low-level crime mutates into something beyond their control, arriving at something of an empire that is seemingly above the law. Director Jeff Nichols posits that gangs such as these essentially created a new Wild West; feared by the police, feuds settled in traditional duels and horses traded for uniquely ‘chopped’ (self-built/modified) motorcycles.

The Bikeriders takes its inspiration from the book of the same name by Danny Lyon which chronicles the lives of a real Chicago motorcycle gang through photography and transcribed interviews. Morphing this into a narrative device, Nichols tells his story through the accounts of Kathy (A chameleon-like Jodie Comer), cutting back and forth between the events and their narration. Kathy is new to the gang and soon finds herself taken in by the charm of Benny, a romance which spans the history of the crew and gives her a front-row seat to most of its main events.

Kathy’s narration has the effect of deconstructing the film’s images as they happen. This does some work to reduce the aggrandizing of the ultra-masculine, uber-’cool’ toxicity on display as the film sets chain-smoking and engine revving to electric guitar riffs and crisp 60s pop. This idea of making myths seems to be at the heart of the project, the film’s soundtrack is not simply just cool set-dressing but also a further commentary on how culture deals with these motorcycle gangs. Whilst Nichols is mostly creating his own version of events, he is also drawing on this rich history in song, film (the iconic Easy Rider gets a feature), advertisement and photography.

the bikeriders film still
(L-R): Austin Butler as Benny and Jodie Comer as Kathy in 20th Century Studios’ THE BIKERIDERS. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

However, this narrative device, which at times makes the film border into near mockumentary, removes much of the film’s dramatic weight due to the stop-start nature of the storytelling. The lightning-cool pace of the opening is immediately withdrawn and as the film develops, it becomes more tangential and loses its narrative force. The gang’s yearly picnic meets become evocative of Richard Linklater’s film Dazed and Confused, as audiences simply hang out with the bikers whilst they drink and converse about rejection, women, and the army. Whilst this does make the film feel richer in detail and more human, the trade-off is that it begins to feel almost too light and inconsequential in contrast with the energetic style displayed elsewhere.

The Vandals don’t just live away from society, they have created their own, a home for outsiders that when it connects with the real world often results in disastrous consequences. In terms of humanising these characters, Nichols works throughout to go beyond stereotypes, using naturalistic dialogue and emphasising the sense of belonging they gain from the group. However, there is just so much on the surface of the film, whether that’s the playfully on-the-nose needle drops, Tom Hardy’s bizarre accent or Austin Butler’s smoulder as he chain-smokes his next packet of cigarettes, that it ultimately still feels somewhat superficial.

Nichols creates a wide tapestry with The Bikeriders, drawing upon midwestern nostalgia and crafting characters from photographs and song lyrics, but this is both its strength and its downfall as the emotional heart of the story gets lost amongst all its formal choices.


The Bikeriders will be released in cinemas on December 1 2023.

Leeds Film Festival runs until November 19 2023.

Daniel Collins

Daniel Collins

Head film editor and writer for The Mancunion.

More Coverage

Eyes Wide Shut 25 years on: A feast for the eyes, a nightmare for the mind

As part of Cultplex’s on-going Movie Church series, fans of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut celebrate his beautifully nightmare-ish film 25 years on

Mothers’ Instinct review: How far will you go to protect your family?

Academy Award Winners Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain have a 1960s face-off in this eerie, twisted game of cat-and-mouse

My formative film: Sprinkles of Stardust can be seen everywhere

How Ian McKellan’s narration, Robert De Niro in drag, and Mark Strong in a matted wig makes Stardust the perfect fantasy film

Jurassic Park: T-Rexcellent or bit of a Dino-snore?

Does Jurassic Park still hold up or would Spielberg have been better off leaving the dinosaurs extinct?