The Bikeriders review: Austin Butler stars in poignant motorcycle tale that can't get out of neutral

Austin Butler and Tom Hardy do their takes on James Dean and Marlon Brando, respectively.

Austin Butler in The Bikeriders
(Image: © Courtesy of Focus Features)

What to Watch Verdict

While The Bikeriders is unquestionably solid and mostly enjoyable, no one is going to put it among the best for any of Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Jodie Cormer or director Jeff Nichols.


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    Beautiful cinematography

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    Effectively portrays changing times and mentalities


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    Lead trio of Butler, Comer and Hardy struggle to elevate the material

On my way to my screening for The Bikeriders I was listening to the Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend podcast when the former late night talk show host discussed a recent cliche in movies and TV shows where the first thing audiences are shown is the main character in a dangerous or exciting situation to get their attention then going backwards to explain how we got there. Funnily enough that exact situation played out in The Bikeriders, as the movie begins with a scene where Austin Butler's Benny gets into a fight with two other men over wearing his motorcycle club jacket before going catching the audience up the story leading up to that.

Whether or not that is truly becoming an overplayed storytelling technique or not, the real problem with The Bikeriders employing it is that the movie never reaches that kind of excitement again. Now, the Jeff Nichols movie is not trying to be The Fast & the Furious, as it is perfectly content with being a more thoughtful chronicle of a period of change in America within the context of motorcycle gangs.

And in that regard Nichols succeeds, as The Bikeriders is a poignant, beautiful looking movie based on the photography and interviews done with members of these kinds of clubs by Danny Lyon. However, while there's a lot to like about the movie, just about all facets of its struggle to go from good to great; Nichols can't seem to find that special feeling that made his previous efforts like Mud and Loving some of the best of the years they were released.

The most obvious thing pointing to that are the three main performances from Butler, Jodie Comer and Tom Hardy. That is not to say any of them are bad in the movie, they're all solid, though it's clear Butler is doing his best James Dean while Hardy, with his latest accent choice, is emulating Marlon Brando (so is his character Johnny, so it makes sense). The story relies on these three characters and the actors' performances, but no one is able to stand out and elevate the material.

Comer gets the lion share of that chance, serving as a de facto narrator, but her performance is more tell than show; though when she isn't providing context and actually in the scene she shines. With Butler, his Benny is described as wild, but his performance is reserved and his darker side is never effectively explored. Hardy's Johnny gets the closest to a complete arc, but he's missing that Brando magnetism from The Wild One (most would) to make it as effective as it needed to be.

Tom Hardy and Austin Butler in The Bikeriders

Tom Hardy and Austin Butler in The Bikeriders (Image credit: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features)

The characters that truly shine are the supporting characters, including Michael Shannon, Boyd Holbrook, Norman Reedus, Emory Cohen and Damon Herriman. We only get snippets of them, but their characters and performances feel so authentic that it's a treat when we get to see them interact with each other and just talk about bikes or the world as their characters see it.

And it is the depiction of that world of the late 1960s/early 1970s, featuring gorgeous cinematography by Adam Stone, where The Bikeriders truly shines. The community of the biker gang is the heart of the movie, but despite imbuing it with rules and a sense of honor and respect, it was impossible to keep bad apples from entering the picture and distorting things. It is not hard to see Nichols depiction of this as a kind of allegory for not only for the 1960s and 1970s, but the American experiment itself.

It's a slow burn in telling that though, which isn't in itself a problem, but again it comes back to this cliche of opening the movie with an exciting moment well into the story. The show of violence gets us amped up a bit, but then things never quite reach that level again. At least for me, it took a bit of recalculation to get on the same wavelength that the rest of the movie had.

Overall, The Bikeriders is a solid movie, even if it struggles to make the jump to good/great. Nichols continues to be a director that is interested in telling meaningful stories, he just couldn't quite find the perfect way to crack this one as he has with his previous efforts.

The Bikeriders releases exclusively in movie theaters on June 21.

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.