Jeff Nichols’ Mesmerizing ‘Bikeriders’ Sets New Cinematic Milestones

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Jeff Nichols’ filmography is a kaleidoscope of still imagery milling with the raw stuff of myths and stories. His lens captures the most enchanting and unordinary of images and transforms them into timeless narratives that resonate across the echelons of experience and expectation. His Mississippi-set story, “Mud,” is spun out of the simple, almost ethereal sight of a boat propped up by a tree. His earnest representation of an interracial marriage in the tumultuous 60s, “Loving,” drew its essence from a series of tender photographs published in Life magazine. The latest jewel affixed in his artistic crown, “The Bikeriders,” has its roots firmly ensconced in a 1968 book by photographer Danny Lyon chronicling four memorable years spent with a Chicago motorcycle club.

The raw charm of Lyon’s monochrome imprints is not lost on Nichols’ adroit vision. The swathe of unconventional elements on display – chrome bikes gleaming under the glacial gaze of the sun, hair slicked back to form a pearl-like sheen, and black leather jackets defining the absolute end of the color spectrum – all combine into a rather sartorial spectacle. But even in this whirlwind of symbolisms and signs, Nichols finds a much deeper narrative flow that speaks to a burgeoning spirit of daring noncompliance, easy-going camaraderie, and a fresh categorization of life on the fringes. Like Nichols’ previous masterwork, “Loving,” the film projects the visage of classically portrayed outcasts, surfacing an indelible tug-war between the longing for freedom and the fear of its implications in America.

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“The Bikeriders,” set to debut in theaters Friday, doesn’t aim to weave its narrative around its central motley crew, the Vandals (real-life parallels drawn from the Outlaws); instead, it drifts into an enchanting, hypnotic atmosphere that hearkens back to the wonder of vintage photographs. Constrained by the weight of an ambitious plot, Nichols’ riders emanate a sense of ennui that prevents them from charting their own path, instead deferring to a determined story arc.

The story is framed within the prism of Lyon himself, portrayed by Mike Faist, who conducts a series of interviews culminating in a book, interspersed by conversations that break the chronological monotony.

Riding into this tableau is a woman named Kathy, grounded in reality, with an unexpected Illinois accent and a distinct disdain for motorcycles. However, the inevitability of attraction comes calling when she locks eyes with Benny, a man whose inexplicable charm acts as the perfect antidote to her initial reluctance. This layered array of characters, including the James Dean-esque Butler and the Marlon Brando-inspired character of Hardy, together with their companions, Cal, Cockroach, Funny Sonny, and Zipco, constitute the backbone of a distinct Americana ethos that Nichols molds masterfully.

But beneath the camaraderie and the joy of unfettered independence, there grumbles a mount of tension and doubt. As the idea of what the Vandals stand for gradually fades, the risk they pose to members and outsiders begins to take shape. Treading the delicate line of maintaining authenticity while unspooling an expansive American epic, Nichols continues to flicker between mythology and naturalism in almost reflexive alternations. His best and most grounded masterpieces like “Take Shelter,” and “Mud” are testaments to this delicate balancing act.

What sets “The Bikeriders” apart is the film’s unprecedented romantic vision of the Vandals, juxtaposed against a backdrop of harsh skepticism about the muscular masculinity they embody. The movie commands the viewer’s attention simultaneously on the throttle and the brakes, embodying Nichols’ dual impulses that make his films a cinematic delight.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that “The Bikeriders,” a Focus Features presentation, has received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association, on account of the language, violence, some on-screen drug use, and brief sexuality. With a runtime of 116 minutes packed with unquestionable gravitas, the film earns three stars out of four.