The Bikeriders (Focus Features, R)

Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite directors working today, but he hasn’t had a feature-length film out since 2016, with the double play of Midnight Special and Loving. Midnight Special was more along the lines of a failed version of his early masterpiece Take Shelter — a low-key science-fiction concept with huge swaths of his trademark understated drama. Loving, a well-hewn drama about the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case which outlawed bans on interracial marriage, stands as one of Nichols’ greatest successes, earning the most year-end nominations and awards of any of his films. Considering Nichols’ ability to flit between genres and keep budgets modest, the long-delayed Bikeriders is perhaps his greatest risk on paper. To my eye, he passes this particular artistic test with flying colors, and I’m hoping the recent boost in overall box office numbers can somehow help this film as well, as it was given the biggest budget yet for any Nichols film.

That budget clearly helped secure the film’s immensely talented cast. Led by Nichols newcomers Tom Hardy, Jodie Comer, and Austin Butler, its titular motorcycle gangs are populated by a fair few of the best character actors available, including Michael Shannon, Nichols’ frequent muse. There’s a pleasant mix of realism and movie magic among the performances here, and that enjoyable blend is even reflected in the thesis of the film. The Bikeriders tells a fictional story inspired by Danny Lyon’s 1967 photo-book of the same name. Nichols turns McCook, Illinois’ Outlaws Motorcycle Club into the Chicago Vandals, and he uses the fictionalized club as a way to explore the appeal of motorcycles and the oncoming of violence some motorcycle clubs have engaged in throughout the decades.

Like Loving, Bikeriders is flawless as a period piece. The houses, bars, and other buildings are crisply, though not unbelievably decorated for the time period, and the costumes fit right in without calling attention to themselves. Additionally, Nichols’ tendency toward auburn hues and pared-down dialogue ensures that the film feels grounded in its time, rather than comedically handcuffed to it. This all supports one of the film’s thematic pillars: middle-aged Vandals leader Johnny (Hardy) is clearly in love with young punk Benny’s (Butler) James Dean aesthetic and wants it for himself, but that fantastic, unabated freedom Benny represents to him is pretty much unattainable, even by Benny himself. That pursuit by both men frustrates Kathy (Comer), Benny’s lover, and this dynamic between the three lead characters acts as a deconstruction of the aesthetics Johnny loves.

The story is told mostly chronologically, but framed as bits and pieces of an interview of Kathy by Danny Lyon (Mike Faist). We see Johnny and Benny’s insecurities through Kathy’s eyes, and much of the smartly-deployed humor of the film is textured by Kathy’s Chicagoland accent. Comer and Butler are terrific and as magnetic as ever, but Tom Hardy delivers perhaps a career-best performance here. There’s both confidence and desperation behind Johnny’s eyes, and Nichols often frames him looking at some specific piece of violence without looking directly at another person. In this way, it’s like we’re getting a running journal of what the Vandals’ leader really thinks. Johnny is the pinnacle of both Hardy’s and Nichols’ ability to understate what they’re trying to get across, and yet make it blazingly felt.

For all these reasons and many more (which I would love to investigate here, but would involve spoilers), I think The Bikeriders is not only among Jeff Nichols’ very best, but sits at the table with some of the best American films about American history in the 20th century. Its references to other motorcycle films (like a hilarious moment involving Easy Rider) are completely earned, because although this film is a work of fiction, it is deeply grounded and specific, both historically and emotionally. | George Napper

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