Writer-director Jeff Nichols (TAKE SHELTER, MUD, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, LOVING) has produced his career best work with THE BIKERIDERS - a film or rare beauty, nuance and heart-break. It's based on a book by photojournalist Danny Lyon, documenting a motorcycle club that slowly morphs into a full-on violent gang, much to the horror of its founder and leader Johnny (Tom Hardy). The real star of the film is Jodie Comer with a flawless working class Midwestern accent, playing Kathy - a good girl who cannot resist the handsome, dangerous biker Benny (Austin Butler). We see the story through her eyes and her narration to an on-screen portrayal of Lyon.
For the first half hour of the film, despite the occasional Iron Cross and bit of senseless violence, one can't help falling in love with this group of outsiders and goofy ne'er-do-wells. When Zipco (Michael Shannon) tells us how the army rejected him, your heart breaks for him. When Cal and Cockroach are goofing around, it's just loveable silliness. And yes, they do ride around on motorbikes and do the odd bit of in-and-out, but they also take care of their own. They are a found family: they vouch for each other.
But the club is a victim of its own success. As the members and chapters increase, it's impossible to know everyone. And the new younger kids come back from Vietnam messed up and hooked on drugs. Nichols starts to show us the truly dark side of the Vandals, as they morph into full-on biker gang, complete with violent misogyny and horrific violence.
All of which leads us to a true Succession fight, worthy more of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. By this point, one wonders if Johnny is stuck in a role he can't escape, in a monster of his not-quite creation. He tries to pass the leadership to charismatic loose canon Benny but even Benny knows better, and more the point, cannot be beholden to anything, not even his wife.
All of this is photographed in the most beautifully warm, sepia-toned, lush manner by DP Adam Stone, and the needle-drop late 60s and early 70s pop and rock tracks capture the atmosphere perfectly. But really this is about a spare script that allows the actors to do all the work between the lines. Comer is award-worthy but everyone is at the top of the game. This is truly one of my favourite films of the year.
THE BIKERIDERS is rated R. It played London 2023 and opens in the USA on December 1st.