When you see a Jeff Nichols film, you expect to be transported. Throughout his career, he has done an exceptional job at putting you in a time and a place, regardless of the topic. With The Bikeriders, Nichols has done it again, though with somewhat diminishing returns. The movie is well acted and mostly engaging, but feels like a missed opportunity to do more with the material. Relative to expectations, it’s a slightly disappointment.
The Bikeriders doesn’t quite have as unique a take on the material as it thinks it has. Now, is it mostly enjoyable? Yes. It just happens to be a bit more surface level than expected. In making his most mainstream work to date, Nichols has blunted some of his normally sparkling character work. It’s hardly a bad film, but it left me wanting more, especially as I considered it throughout the day here at the Telluride Film Festival.
Based on the book of the same name, the film charts the rise and evolution of a Chicago motorcycle club. Seen through the eyes of Kathy (Jodie Comer), we meet the object of her affection in outlaw member Benny (Austin Butler), as well as its leader Johnny (Tom Hardy). Initially disgusted by the bikers, she’s quickly charmed by Benny, marries him, and becomes ingratiated within their ranks. At the same time, she worries about him and has a bit of a cold war with Johnny over who Benny truly belongs to. We also meet other members of the club like Brucie (Damon Herriman), Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Cockroach (Emory Cohen), Zipco (Michael Shannon), and more.
Observing it all and taking pictures, as well as recording interviews, is Danny (Mike Faist). He’s chronicling the club for what will eventually be a book. Spending the most time with Kathy, he gets to see and hear not just how the bikers see themselves, but how a former outsider sees them as well. It all leads to a fairly predictable outcome, though individual moments do stand out.
The trio of Austin Butler, Jodie Comer, and Tom Hardy lead the way here. Butler is continuing his intense ways, trying to channel a little bit of James Dean. There isn’t a ton of nuance to the role, but he compels you throughout. Hardy, on the other hand, manages to underplay some of the intensity, while still being an imposing figure. The standout, however, is Comer, who is a force of nature here. She’s a spark plug and nearly saves the flick. In addition to the aforementioned Emory Cohen, Mike Faist, Damon Herriman, Boyd Holbrook, and Michael Shannon, all of whom are fine, the cast includes Karl Glusman, Norman Reedus, Toby Wallace, and plenty more
Jeff Nichols writes and directs, with more of a mixed bag than usual. He gets some strong work out of his central characters and makes sure the film looks good, but his script never digs deep enough. The curiosity he clearly has for the subject matter doesn’t translate to us. Whereas Midnight Special, Mud, and Take Shelter (his three best flicks) feel very specific, this feels surprisingly anonymous.
The Bikeriders honestly would play better outside of a festival environment. It’s mainstream and well made, it just is a bit more surface level than hoped for. If this is the least impressive thing I see at Telluride this year, it will be something wonderful, since this movie is still mostly solid. I just simply was expecting better. Alas.