Producers: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Arnon Milchan   Director: Jeff Nichols   Screenplay: Jeff Nichols   Cast: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman, Beau Knapp, Emory Cohen, Karl Glusman, Toby Wallace, Norman Reedus, Happy Anderson, Paul Sparks, Will Oldham and Nathan Neorr   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: B+

Even if you don’t share—or can’t understand—the passions that drive the members of the Vandals, the fictional Chicago motorcycle club-turned-gang at the center of “The Bikeriders,” you should be able to appreciate the cinematic intensity writer-director Jeff Nichols, his cast and his crew bring to the telling of their story.  It must be admitted that the film never manages to get inside the characters, but its surface depiction of them is so compelling that it barely matters.  In that respect the film mirrors its inspiration, the 1968 photo-book about a real Chicago cycle gang, the Outlaws, by Danny Lyon, a proponent of what came to be called the New Journalism, who embedded himself in the group to record its lifestyle in images and words, even if analysis of motivation remained superficial at best.

We learn fairly late in the film that the Vandals were the brainchild of Johnny (Tom Hardy), a trucker and family man who was moved to found the club by watching László Benedek’s 1953 “The Wild One,” with Marlon Brando, on TV sometime in the sixties.  But the film begins with a far more violent moment, when Benny (Austin Butler), a member of its founding generation who’s a true rebel without a discernible cause (except the club), gets into an altercation with a couple of guys at a bar when he refuses to take off his leather Vandals jacket.  It leaves Benny seriously injured, and leads to a show of revenge by Johnny, who destroys the place while the authorities look on.

These two events, and others, aren’t told in straightforward linear order, since, like the Lyon’s book, the film is structured as a collage, skipping back and forth in time while also providing an overall portrait of the devolution of the Vandals, originally a haven for outsiders and misfits with its own peculiar code of honor, into what becomes by the seventies a violent criminal gang.  And within that context it follows the relationship between Benny and Kathy (Jodie Comer), which involves more than a little tension in his loyalties to Johnny on the one hand and her on the other.

Kathy, in fact, is the source of most of the narrative, which is told through a long interview with her conducted by Lyon (played by Mike Faist), in which she covers the history of the gang, and of her romance with Benny, retrospectively, and hardly objectively.  Lyon had been living with the gang some years earlier and now, after an absence, has returned for a follow-up.  That structure also allows for the insertion of clips from interviews he’d conducted during his earlier time with members of the group, who include soft-spoken Brucie (Damon Herriman), a moderating force on Jonny;  bushy-haired wild man Zipco (long-time Nichols favorite Michael Shannon); laid-back mechanic Cal (Boyd Holbrook); and sad sack Cockroach (Emory Cohen).

Nichols juxtaposes scenes at the beginning and end of the film to accentuate the changes in the Vandals over time.  There are two instances, for example, when Johnny is challenged for leadership.  In the first, when he rejects a request to establish a chapter elsewhere posed by burly Big Jack (Happy Anderson), the men square off in a muddy confrontation (“Knives or fists?” is the question Johnny poses in such situations), and it’s a fierce battle, but one that conforms to accepted rules.  But later, when Johnny is again forced to face off against an opponent, simply called the Kid (Toby Wallace), whom he’d previously turned down for membership because of a lack of loyalty to his friends, the norms no longer apply, and the transformation of the group, which begins with the arrival of gnarly West Coast biker Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus) and continues with the addition of druggies and violence-addicted Vietnam vets, is complete.

Similarly, two scenes are fashioned to reflect Kathy’s initial attraction to and alienation from the gang.  Her description of her initial introduction to the Vandals in their favorite bar is presented with a mixture of humor and menace, but leads to her being swept off her feet by ultra-cool Benny and riding off with him, leaving her hard-working boyfriend in the dust.  But late in the film she’s mistaken at a party for easy prey by some of the newer members, and barely escapes being raped.  It’s precisely the sort of shift in the outfit that compels Benny to make a definitive choice between her and Johnny.

Such choices make it clear that for all the differences “The Bikeriders” has in narrative terms from his previous films, Nichols remains basically a classical filmmaker who might work in a complex structure but uses well-established means to achieve his ends.  The film has been compared to Scorsese’s work, in particular “GoodFellas,” and to some extent the comparison is apt, but not because Nichols is simply transposing a story about a criminal cabal from one milieu to another, but because both he and Scorsese are at heart classical directors, using tried-and-true means, albeit in inventive ways, to achieve their dramatic ends.  And doing it well. 

That classicism is also shown in the work of his collaborators—a superb technical team (production designer Chad Keith, costumer Erin Benach, cinematographer Adam Stone, composer David Wingo and expert needle-droppers Lauren Mikus and Bruce Gilbert) who make the film capture the look and sound of the time and place where it’s set, the varied elements tied together despite the complex construction in the editing of Julie Monroe)—and an equally fine cast.  Hardy cannily depicts a fellow who knows that he has to keep up the pose he’s created, skillfully showing the uncertainty that’s lurking beneath the surface from the beginning, but more and more as he feels things slip from his control.  That insecurity lies behind Johnny’s dependence on Benny, whom he sees as the real deal he can only approximate, the one who can save what he’s built.  And Butler captures that iconic character with a performance that’s movie-star perfect, projecting Benny’s absolute adherence to his personal ideals (and his complete command of appearance and gesture) even when he’s laid up with a broken foot (which, however, he won’t let prevent him from answering Johnny’s call to attend an important meeting even though Kathy objects). 

In the final analysis, however, despite those two fine macho turns and excellent supporting one that run the gamut from Shannon’s highly theatrical Zipco to Faist’s understated Lyon, it’s Comer who proves the essential ingredient here, the chatty, no-nonsense, besotted but perceptive feminine centerpiece of the triangle that serves as the story’s emotional soul.  In a role that could hardly be further removed from her multi-season exhibition of virtuosity on “Killing Eve,” she proves the extraordinary range of her talent.

“The Bikeriders” doesn’t glamorize the culture the Vandals represented early on, nor justify what the gang became.  But it offers an exhilarating portrait of the desperate macho bravado it initially evoked and a trenchant one of the vicious nihilism it degenerated into, showcasing some remarkable performances in the process.