“The Bikeriders” Paints A Gritty Picture Of Biker Culture


Set over a decade from the late ‘60s through the early ‘70s, “The Bikeriders” is a portrait of a biker culture in flux. Set against the backdrop of counterculture America, the biker club slowly evolves as the country around it changes and becomes more gang than group.

Based loosely on Danny Lyon’s book of the same name, “The Bikeriders” follows Kathy, a woman who marries Benny (played by Austin Butler) after a chance encounter. Benny is a young and reckless member of the Vandals motorcycle club. Kathy recounts the story of the Vandals to the photographer, Danny, who later goes on to write the aforementioned book about the group with pictures and transcribed interviews. Of particular focus is the relationship between Benny and the club’s leader, Jonny (Tom Hardy), as well as the tension between Benny’s commitment to the gang, Benny’s marriage to Kathy, and Benny’s own wants and desires (or lack thereof).

Don’t expect a thriller. The film moves at a leisurely pace - it’s more a snapshot of gritty Americana than a tightly woven narrative. “The Bikeriders” is thin on plot but heavy on aesthetic; every shot has chrome, beer, cigarette smoke and grease stains. Despite the story’s looseness and lack of cohesion - a lackadaisical approach much like that of the drifters who joined the Vandals club - the film manages to explore rather powerful, if subtle, themes of machismo, violence, and what it means to belong (or not belong) to a group.

Kathy, despite being married to a core Vandals member and having a close relationship with Vandals leadership, is perpetually on the outside of the club. As a woman, she can never be a true Vandal. All throughout, there’s being inside, and there’s being outside - and it’s not always clear which category a person fits in. The “picos” with college degrees and short pants, who don’t know how to work with their hands, are “outside” in one member’s opinion. But Danny, the photographer and a Vandal himself, has a college degree and likes to take pretty pictures. New kids are allowed to join the group, but they don’t respect Kathy or the old-timers. Vietnam veterans return with hard drug addictions, unlike the original members who stick to pot and beer. New chapters of the club spring up, but there’s a distrust of change and that change eventually consumes the group. What it means to belong changes, becomes narrower, becomes more exclusionary.

Machismo is also explored ever so quietly in a film about loud motorcycles. Anya Taylor Joy, the renowned actress, recently commented that she is tired of feminine anger being suppressed on-screen - women are often directed to cry, when the appropriate emotion is rage. What’s not often discussed is the corollary to this - men can be angry, but they’re not to shed tears. “The Bikeriders” is a sad, sad film - a lot of sad things happen, but so rarely does that sadness surface in the male faces on-screen, not in an obvious way. Tom Hardy is, as always, on top form. Not only is his accent and Midwest persona completely on point; he also delivers an Oscar-worthy scene where it is so clear he is heartbroken - yet he never sheds a tear, and hardly says a word. Only at the end, when it’s all over for the club as it was, does Benny break down and cry.

Along the way, we see the push and pull of violence and empathy, the juxtaposition of attachment and detachment. Hardy’s character takes a softer approach as leader - force is used when necessary, but he’s a soft-spoken man who is relatively open-minded, cares for his members deeply, and seems to prefer diplomacy to battling. This approach doesn’t last when new bikers move in who value power and hierarchy more than brotherhood. Benny, famed for his detachment and lack of desire, is Jonny’s choice for next leader. Meanwhile, Kathy wishes for Benny to stay home, take care of her, and take care of himself. Benny chooses to follow neither of them, chooses to run from the situation as the ultimate avoidant friend and husband - but he comes to realize in the end what really matters.

The gang as it once was disintegrates and something new takes its place, even if the group still bears the same name, and we’re left as viewers to reflect on what remains and what is no more.

“The Bikeriders” is an evocative snapshot of a time lost to history, even if its themes ring true to this day.


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