Nichols’ ‘The Bikeriders’ Challenges Masculinity and Captures Untold Americana

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From their silent allure, holding the mystery of stories untold, still images have held a poignant sway in shaping the heart of Jeff Nichols’ films. Nichols’ repertoire extends from the enchanting Mississippi tale of “Mud,” its roots embedded in the visually compelling image of an air-suspended boat moored by the solid trunk of a tree, to “Loving,” a 1960s narrative, enclosing the soft ambience of intimate Life magazine photographs of a real-life interracial couple.

Continuing with his signature touch, Nichols is now presenting a visual treat from yesteryears named “The Bikeriders.” This vivid display, which comes from the 1968 black-and-white collection of acclaimed lensman Danny Lyon, was a recollection of his immersive four-year journey within a Chicago motorcycle club.

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Nichols’ draw to Lyon’s still images is evident. Amongst the ruggedly charismatic backdrop featuring mirrored chrome bikes, gelled-back hairstyles, and black leather jackets, a distinct dissident spirit shimmers- one that thrives in rebellious freedom held by the brotherhood. Much like Nichols’ previous work, “Loving,” this film sketches an unconventional romanticism surrounding outsiders, providing a conflicting yet enticing commentary on the concept of freedom in America.

In its theatrical release this Friday, “The Bikeriders” envelopes its audience in a thick haze filled with nostalgia, creating a thrilling yet intoxicating atmosphere that harks back to the era of the originals. We follow a merry group of riders called the Vandals, whom Nichols models after the Outlaws, lacking any pressing narrative direction. As the plot gradually adds weight, its chained narrative ties down these rebels, who appear visibly strained under the compounding burden. The movie is like a pair of untamed stallions, struggling between the gusty winds of their fierce independence and the soft whispers charting the course it must follow.

“The Bikeriders” grounds its plot within the life of Danny Lyon, the intriguing character depicted by Mike Faist, as he conducts interviews for his book on motorcycle culture. Coincidentally, the viewer experiences this rollercoaster ride through narratives laid out by a woman named Kathy, played by Jodie Comer.

Initially, Kathy seems an unusual mouthpiece for her gang — her narrative punctuated by an overpowering Illinois accent, and her stiff resistance to the biker lifestyle. And yet, in the haze-filled bar, a spark is struck between her and charismatic Benny, played by Austin Butler – a spark she doesn’t yet recognize but is impossible to ignore. Nichols’ homage to classic cinema is laid bare once again, manifesting in the form of Benny’s almost-Elvis like charm.

As the group’s activities roll past the simple joys of brawls and field-riding races, they slowly veer into serious criminality, a paradigm shift even its leaders Johnny and Benny are struggling to grasp. Nichols deftly portrays the conflict of sexual tension and loyalty as our protagonist Benny must choose – does he follow his pledged loyalty towards the Vandals, or Kathy’s pleas for a safer path?

Despite occasionally falling prey to the tropes of a traditional gang-thriller, persistence on Nichols part to stay true to the authenticity of his setting leads to a harmonious coexistence of mythology and reality within the film’s narrative. “The Bikeriders” shows an earnest attempt to hold a mirror to conventional perceptions of masculinity. This approach to filmmaking has earned Nichols recognition among his contemporaries, carving him a spot among the most important film makers of his time.

With “The Bikeriders,” Nichols succeeds in creating a cinematic piece that is both sincere in its portrayal of rebels, while critically examining the rugged, masculine ideology it encapsulates. The film smoothly handles the throttles while vigilantly holding the brakes, creating an invigorating experience for the moviegoer. Running for a tight 116 minutes, the Focus Features release has bagged an R rating from the Motion Picture Association for language, violence, drug use, and brief sexuality. Like a heart-pounding bike ride through the mesmerizing landscapes of Americana, the movie stands firm with three stars out of four.