Photography: courtesy of Focus Pictures

FOR A FILM about the rough and tumble lives of motorcyclists, perhaps it was inevitable that The Bikeriders had a circuitous route to our cinema screens. The film, written and directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Austin Butler and Tom Hardy, tells the story of a fictional Chicago motorcycle gang in the 1960s. It premiered at the film festival Telluride last year and was scheduled for release in December 2023 by 20th Century Studios. A festive flick to enjoy with your father? Alas, it was not meant to be: the film was dropped, bought by Focus, and given a 2024 release. I doubt any of that was fun for those involved, but it turned out to be good news for me – and hopefully you! – because this is exactly the type of film the 2024 cinemascape needed.

This is not a true story, but it is based on true things. Nichols (Mud, Loving) took inspiration from the work of photojournalist Danny Lyon (played by Challengers and West Side Story’s Mike Faist), who spent years with the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, a biker gang established in Illinois. He took photos, he interviewed members and then compiled all that into a 1967 book of the same name, which is now seen as an important slice of New Journalism (other members of that historic club: Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe).

The film’s fictional gang is called the Vandals. Johnny (Tom Hardy) is the leader. He is surrounded by his mad, bad, dangerous-to-cross cohort. What is behind the surge in popularity of gangs at the time? There is the camaraderie, I suppose, and a sense of nostalgia in a changing world. Maybe they like the outfits? I found it hard initially to see the appeal. Not so for Benny (Austin Butler, fresh off stealing Dune: Part Two and riding the skies in Masters of the Air), who becomes an increasingly prominent member the Vandals throughout the film. He is scrappy, fearless and does not mind getting beaten to a pulp. As far as I can tell, that’s the only eligibility criteria, as well as a high alcohol tolerance and nicotine addiction. But he soon becomes infatuated with Kathy (Jodie Comer, a sensitive performance), whose experiences of these years provide the basis for the film’s narrative.

The Bikeriders’ first third, in which Butler gets accustomed to the world of the Vandals, is exhilarating. It’s hard not to see Butler as anything but a Hollywood star. There is a whiff of James Dean to Butler’s lost-boy persona and, it must be noted, his face. As he begins to integrate with other members of the gang – guys with names like Zipco and Cockroach – you begin to understand the allure of these freewheeling spirits (or at least understand how that could be a draw to certain people). But it’s when the film loosens up a little and introduces the main tension that we get to the heart of the matter. Because Benny must choose between his love for Kathy and his love for the Vandals, which brings us to the third point on this particular love triangle . . . Tom Hardy.

Is this a homoerotic film? There is certainly a lot of leather and tumbling around in the grass. But it remains very much the most sub of texts. That is not to say the idolisation between Benny and Johnny is not compelling. I could have watched Hardy and Butler circle one another, smoke cigarettes and grunt at each other all day. Which is a good thing, because this is what makes up a lot of this film (that, and a healthy smattering of questionable accents) as Johnny eyes Benny as a potential successor to his throne. If Benny’s actual motives feel a little unexplored, well, perhaps you could say that’s because he is a wanderer searching for purpose. And as the Vandals morph from brothers-in-arms to an actual crime gang (a shift that Esquire’s July digital cover star Toby Wallace has a bit to do with), Benny’s soul-searching only becomes more tortured.

As a viewer, it is easy and enjoyable to tag along for the journey. Nichols successfully builds another world, one of bar fights and beer-fuelled conversations, which is a joy to spend time in. It is handsome, well-made, and convincingly acted. By the film’s end, as Benny has to decide between a gasoline-free existence and the roar of the road, I too felt like I was fighting an urge to light a cigarette, pick up a leather jacket and find the nearest chopper. (Safe to say I have never once so much as sat on a motorbike.)

The Bikeriders is out today in Australian cinemas.

This story originally appeared on Esquire UK.


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