Saturday, July 6, 2024

Where the wild ones are


Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (based on the book by Danny Lyon)

Spoilers: moderate

One of the nicer things I have to say about The Bikeriders, which is still horribly backhanded, is that it finally finds writer-director and acclaimed boremonger Jeff Nichols taking on a project, and a cast, that he can't completely squander; it's not the nicest thing I could say, and to get out in front of it, I actually like the movie he made.  I could start instead with praise for the individual members of that cast, particularly its lead, Tom Hardy, and its chief supporting actor, Austin Butler (the credits seem to have gotten this backwards).  But if we're talking about the experience as a whole, it's the rare moment where I wasn't conscious, sometimes distractingly conscious, of how incredibly, inexplicably far it was from living up to the potential and promise of its milieu and lead performance and chief supporting performance.

I shouldn't speak so sneeringly out of turn about Nichols, I guess.  I'm not familiar with his entire filmography, but there's just something so Goddamn arid about his movies, even when they sound like they'd be virtually impossible to render into slogs: Midnight Special, which is basically straight from the "beloved 80s sci-fi movie" template but passed through Nichols's patented Anti-Fun Filter, is the kind of thing that would sour one on a filmmaker, all by itself.  About three years ago, I watched Take Shelter, concerning a rural Michael Shannon going insane, and at present I can't remember a single blessed thing about it besides its logline, so that's probably no good either; meanwhile, my spouse, who is more tolerant of dull genre-free true story dramas than I am, reports that Loving, which you'd think would at least find space for romance, is pretty useless, and though I am appropriately skeptical because our tastes diverge mightily, it certainly looked boring, and even positive reviews of it indicated that this was the case.  So it is a minor triumph that he made a movie that wasn't even boring this time, just kind of broken, though the reason it's broken is probably down to the same root reasons his other movies aren't enjoyable, a general absence of a poetry in his soul, and a stubborn insistence on treating even the most mythic-sounding scenarios with an observational, journalistic sensibility.  Which isn't even exactly the same as an historical one, or an intellectual one, but at least it works a lot better on behalf of a portrait of a counterculture motorcycle club as it becomes decadent throughout the 1960s than it does, for example, with a telekinetic super-kid who has to be rescued from a cult and, if I recall, was an alien or somesuch similar shit.

And maybe it's just following suit from its source material, as The Bikeriders is nominally an adaptation of Danny Lyon's work of photojournalism published under the same, underwhelming name in 1968.  It's enough of an adaptation of that book that Lyon (Mike Faist), under the author's name and everything, is allowed to become a fixture throughout the movie, which I mean in a very negative way, as I was initially excited to see Faist in a biker movie, yet his major contribution throughout is to hold a microphone at the other actors.  We'll get to that soon.

It's not enough of an adaptation of that book, however, to use its actual subjects, the Outlaws, who are instead expied as "the Vandals."  That might be fair enough: if the Outlaws are like the Hells Angels, then their name and colors are their corporation's IP, and it's not an especially flattering portrait.  Then again, it's chickenshit-bordering-on-whitewashing in a few ways, very visibly so in the absence of any overt Nazi paraphernalia (one guy wears a discreet iron cross, and we can have a conversation about what swastikas meant to bikers in the 60s if you really, really want to, but they were simply more present than this, much as Lyon reported).  It's inaccurate enough, though, that I can't imagine why Nichols ever had any legal obligation to pay Lyon money, considering that, again, he doesn't use the name "Outlaws," the name Bikeriders sucks, and the Outlaws predated World War II, so unless time travel was involved, their formation wasn't inspired by The Wild One; and, frankly, it would've been much more pleasurable if Faist were playing a knock-off of Hunter S. Thompson, because this "Lyon" is an absolute nonentity.  The film's narrative does track to the history of the Outlaws, in the sense that there was a violent power struggle as the Outlaws shaded from motorcycle club to biker gang, but "power struggles" are a pretty generic feature of gangs.  The Chicagoland setting dictates that we read the Vandals as the Outlaws; but it would take a more eagle-eyed or generous viewer than me to assert that it uses the specifics of that setting, for it doesn't seem like it would've used the specifics of any setting, which is increasingly a strike against it as you realize this movie called The Bikeriders actually doesn't have much bikeriding.

But I'm probably veering too negative already and, perhaps, being too petty.  There are certainly bigger problems than "it doesn't feel properly grounded in this place I've never been in a time period where I wasn't alive."  So what we have is this: in either the late 50s or the early 60s, the Vandals split off from a motorcycle racing club and rapidly achieved their ambitions of becoming One Percenters (i.e., the 1% of bikers who are anarchy-loving rebels and ruin it for all the law-abiding riders, according to the squares of the American Motorcycle Association).  Their founder is Johnny (Hardy), a short-haul trucker, family man, and bike enthusiast somewhere in the midst of middle-age, whose inchoate yearnings for camaraderie and freedom were crystallized one night as he gazed upon Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and The Bikeriderswhich is frequently low-key funny, so again, we shouldn't let the perfect be an implacable enemy of the good enoughoffers its best joke with a quietly brilliant little riff on The Wild One's most famous quote.

By the time we catch up with him, costumed play has become costumed life for Johnny, as the king of Chicago's premier outlaw biker club, growing in popularity and reputation as the 60s march on.  We meet Johnny, however, through Kathy (Jodie Comer), who encounters the Vandals one night at a bar, and does not like the cut of their jib, except for oneBenny (Butler).  His (comparative) gentlemanliness sweeps her off her feet, and he's even her hero, as he rescues her, in turn, from both his own leering compatriots and her stultifying life with her shitty, angry boyfriend.

Don't try this at home, kids.  You must be this hot for this to work.

They're married in five weeks, but Benny, believe it or not, is not a very good husband, for his heart belongs to the road and to the Vandals; but it belongs to them in that order, for when Johnny, starting to feel the bite of age, attempts to anoint him his heir and successor, Benny can only resist.  Each placing their contradictory demands on this untameable spirit, neither Johnny nor Kathy seem to win his soul.  And all along, the Vandals are growing in size, but the club is becoming a darker, more violent thing, mutating from good-natured rough-housing with "rival" gangs, resulting in only minor injuries, into out-and-out drug- and PTSD-inflected savageryfascistic demands of group loyalty from the rank-and-file, maybe gang-rape, maybe murderand Johnny isn't going to be able to stop what's coming.

There's a magnificent story there, right?  But it's all in the telling.  Nichols has elected to tell it through Kathy, and I wouldn't say that, in principle, that's a mistake.  (Although if we're nitpicking, and we have been, maybe it wasn't flawless filmmaking to make her first meeting with Benny so much resemble Benny staging a peril which he could save her from, because I'm actually pretty sure that wasn't even Nichols's intention.)  Anyway, what we get out of Kathy is a framing device, with Lyon catching back up with Kathy a few years down the line.  And that's all well and good, too, even if I have significant concerns about Comer's Midwestern accent work, which sounds more like Phil Hartman making fun of Dave Foley's Wisconsinite on NewsRadio.  But I certainly have no problem with our "in" to the world of the Vandals being the woman who, on the back of a Harley, fell utterly in love with one.

The thing is, neither one of those things comes off, almost to the extent that the former feels like it's ripping screentime away from the latter.  Sure, there's much to appreciate about a 2024 film that runs only 116 minutes, but trying to squeeze a decade of time for three major characters and a half-dozen minor ones into that runtime is a challenge Nichols isn't mastering.  To the romance first, then: where is it?  I'm almost entirely certain that Benny and Kathy never kiss, or at least French kiss, over the course of the entire movie, which is about their relationship; the "mind-blowing sexual idyll" phase falls into some never-seen offscreen abyss, and by the time we come back to our lovers we've already settled into full-tilt "wah, why won't the outlaw biker stop getting into fights and riding motorcycles?", unfulfilled-wife territory, and Nichols seems completely unaware that while there's no mystery why somebody might fuck the smoldering bad boy who looks like Austin Butler, he still needs to put some Goddamned effort into why somebody would stay with him, even when he does look like Austin Butler, especially when no happy times have been depicted and in every single shot with both of them in it Comer looks miserable.  Comer is, overall, the weak link of this cast (Faist doesn't honestly count as "in the cast"), but not chiefly through any fault of her own: her chemistry with Butler issomehowbad, but her character is also about as stereotyped as I think you'll see in this day and age, a woman determined to have what she loves even if she needs to break it.

Which isn't even a bad story, it's just that the way Nichols has elected to tell it, it's not any story, only managing a "greatest hits" rendition of that story.  Here's where the movie actually starts failing in an active rather than passive way, then, because that "framing device" is a constancy: this perpetual return back to Kathy out in the future of 1973, talking to Lyon and verging on his sole interview subject (frankly, I'm so much more interested in Johnny's wife, who gets, like, four lines).  So much of this movie is Comer doing that accent, carping away in a manner that elucidates virtually nothing, either explaining scenes that already explained themselves, or, maybe worse, serving to audio-describe scenes that aren't there, but should be.  (The movie wasn't expensive, but doesn't even look like what it cost$30-40 million, for the record.)  There is precious little flow to thisthe best parts of the movie are when Comer hasn't had a voiceover in almost ten minutesand since there isn't much plot, either, the movie falls into something close to pure vignettishness, so in the end it's never going to be better than an averaging-out of its scenes.

And that disappoints me, because all we needed to do was cut that fucking chaff and give it some robust connective tissueyou know, like a movie.  Even keep the vignettes, by all means: they're never bad vignettes, and often illustrative of the social alienation and newfound community we've got here with our Vandals, offering a number of generously-squalid roles for a whole bunch of actors, from Michael Shannon to Norman Reedus to Emory Cohen to Toby Wallace (the latter plays this movie's Benny Blanco From the Bronx), all doing strong work individuating a bunch of background characters whose entire point is that they're literally cut from the same cloth.  Maybe add more than four minutes of second-unit footage, too.  (Though Benny does get a very nice, dryly-amusing chase scene, early on.)  Do that, and we have something that really could have been special.  At bottom, The Bikeriders does have an actual story, and Nichols's movie is at its best when it's pursuing it, because it's principally a creature of Hardy and Butler.  Both actors are doing pretty much exactly the work you'd expect: Hardy is committing hard to a bizarre, high-pitched accent from nowhere, whilst always making a bunch of twitchy and unexpected, but inevitably-correct decisions for his face and body, this being much as he has done in a score of movies by now; while if Butler can't really have an "expected" yet, "being an extraordinary prop for a pop culturally-informed fantasy" obviously can't be a surprise after his starmaking turn in Elvis.  But if they're not shocking you, that doesn't mean they aren't perfect for Johnny and Benny when Johnny needs to see in Benny the very ideal of the outlaw biker he adores, an almost messianic figure if only he were of human flesh, which Butler then makes into something more akin to the roar of the wind, something you can feel, but never take hold of.  This, like everything else, is still presented pretty much only by way of vignette, but they are the best vignettes; and I'm especially impressed by the way cinematographer Adam Stone presents their key scene together, an electrically intimate nighttime affair as Johnny almost pleads with him, and Butler is allowed to almost vanish inside the darkness as Hardy approaches closer and closer, yet Butler still commands the scene with just, like, his edge-lighting.

There is not nearly as much like this as you'd want out of The Bikeriders, which is why, if I'd be apt to credit anyone besides Butler and Hardy for it, it's only the cinematographer; Nichols, just about everywhere else, is simply not very good at establishing atmosphere, mood, tone, or whatever you want to call the feeling of losing yourself to a movie.  He can compose a shot, and he can make an impact with an edit: Johnny is introduced with some superb deep composition (and shallow focus) that makes for some swell imagistic efficiency.  (And then, weirdly but maybe not surprisingly, Benny's introduction right afterwards feels like a small flub, with what feels like a notesed-in set of inserts because the audience needs to know the guy's name right away or something; it's incredibly bogus because the very next set of shots sells his immediate, gently-hypnotic hold on Kathy so well, and it is incredibly difficult to understand why Nichols screwed himself out of what, otherwise, would've been a terrifically classical-feeling first shot for Butler).  But neither the soundtrack (the most charitable thing to say about the soundtrack would be that no one's going to accuse its constituent parts of being overplayed) nor David Wingo's subdued score (I had to look it up to be sure there was a score) pick up the emotional slack, and there's a fair amount of that, thanks to the horrifically damaging start-and-stop structure inflicted upon the narrative by the framing device.

Beyond that, there's just so much restraint here, and I'll ask you, does "restraint" sound like the one word you'd associate with "outlaw bikers"?  Nichols can copy the desperate metaphorical sex of The Wild One's bike ride into darkness, but something in him won't let him copy it passionately (the equivalent scene here is about one-third as long, and almost objectively ends too early to hit; the signature image of this one, in fact, is more about the grandeur of Benny's masculine community,* though at least the sense of wonder does belong to Kathy).  I'm equally sure that Nichols knows what a "death ride" sequence is, and I'm sure he's seen such melancholy fatalism play out in some other movie; but that would be forcing an emotion on us, with cinema, and that's somehow anathema to him, I think.  Best to have an awkward conversation that can't say what the characters are feeling and do that up in some choice shot/reverse-shot for three straight minutes.  Thus does this movie about these men who ride these machines, cyborgs whom Lyon photographed and Thompson described with much awe, become reliant to an utter and dysfunctional degree upon its actors; so thank goodness it had the right ones.  But even then, there's the occasional value in Nichols's approach, never moreso than in that final shot, a perfect join of directorial forbearance and actorly ambiguity.  It certainly leaves one on a high note, even if one has some serious reservations about the movie as a complete object.

Score: 6/10

*The movie is "about masculinity," I hear.  It's also in color, in 2.39:1, and was shot on a Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2.


  1. I can’t be the only one wondering what a Baz Luhrman version of this film would have looked like, can I? (If you want some pulse-pounding passion you can’t for far wrong with The Baz).

    Also, rockabilly, greaser … I wonder which iconic subculture of 1950s Americana Mr Austin Butler is going to hit next?

    1. Astronaut and beat poet, then we'll have a real set.

      And no, I have mused elsewhere that a Luhrmann version of this would be rad, though if we wanted it to resemble this/be non-insane, and I suppose I would, my go-to would probably have been Michael Mann. (Or at least middle-period, 90s-early 00s Michael Mann.) But the latter wouldn't bother with such an invidious framing narrative, and while the former might, considering he did so in Elvis, now *that'*s a narrator.