The point of view from which a film is presented can have a major impact on the story it tells and how it’s received. Employing a narrator or voiceover frames the plot in a particular way, which could be radically different from how it might seem if the characters were simply allowed to speak for themselves with no omniscient summary to ground or enhance their lives. With his latest film, Jeff Nichols (Loving) adapts a book filled with photographs of a real-life motorcycle club and brings it to life via the very distinctive voice (and questionable accent) of an outsider drawn to the club by her attraction to one of its members.
Kathy (Jodie Comer) speaks to journalist and photographer Danny (Mike Faist) about the Chicago Vandals, a motorcycle club founded by Johnny (Tom Hardy), a family man with two daughters who got the idea from watching movies. Kathy is initially turned off by the many men who ogle and attempt to grope her, but she’s entranced by Benny (Austin Butler), one of the more volatile members of the group known for his run-ins with the law and everyday people who don’t like him wearing his jacket out in public. There’s plenty to tell, and Kathy is more than willing to give Danny as much information as he wants about this particular crew.
A British-born actress, Comer has demonstrated her exceptional knack for accents with her Emmy-winning turn opposite Sandra Oh in Killing Eve as a Russian assassin. Yet she falls into a typical trap for those looking to imitate an American dialect, one that might be more common with Boston or New York accents, which is to overcompensate and deliver something that is extremely strong, grating, and impossible to ignore. It’s not that Comer’s accent isn’t correct or that she doesn’t give a solid performance, but instead that her voice is so loud and unique that its somewhat comic nature dominates the entire experience of the film. Her much subtler performance in another AFI Fest entry, The End We Start From, is far more effective and palatable.
There is some playfulness involved in this experience, especially when it comes to the childlike interactions of the members of the club. They behave more often like adolescents than adults when they have petty squabbles, and it’s all fun and games until a fight breaks out and someone may never walk again. The balance of humor and drama in this film is off, and it’s hard to tell whether a given scene will head in a funny or serious direction. While that may imitate the way real life is, it makes for a slightly disjointed viewing experience in a film where it really should be more set and determined.
Nichols reunites with his go-to star Michael Shannon, who appears in a small role as one of the pricklier members of the club, but this collaboration is hardly as noteworthy or outstanding as Take Shelter or Mud. The storytelling style Nichols employs feels almost too normative, devoid of the magic and mystique of some of his earlier films. It’s Sons of Anarchy but in the 1970s, with similar key plot touchpoints and a trajectory that inevitably involves avoidable violence that manifests because of the dominant and foolish pull of power and masculinity.
Audiences eager to see Butler’s much-anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-nominated turn as Elvis Presley may be disappointed by his screentime and particularly his lack of dialogue. While he does bristle and charm in a few select scenes, he takes a backseat to Kathy and Johnny. Fortunately, Hardy is brooding and watchable, zoning in on Johnny’s sense of pride in what he has created. Other notable members of the cast include Damon Herriman and Boyd Holbrook as two members of the club who might theoretically be the stabler choices to run things than the hotheaded duo of Johnny and Benny.
The visual components of The Bikeriders are strong, and though its narrative sometimes feels convoluted by frequent jumps in time based on when Kathy is telling a certain part of the story, it remains engaging, if familiar. The recent release delay from early December to an unknown date may be a sign of its lackluster awards prospects, since voters may not go for Butler’s largely wordless performance and Comer’s overwhelming accent. Nichols has never had much luck with Oscar voters despite strong efforts in the past, and it’s unlikely this film will be the one to change that, no matter when it’s ultimately released.
The Bikeriders debuted at the Telluride Film Festival and played at AFI Fest this past weekend. 20th Century Studios recently pulled it from its planned Dec. 1 release date with no new date announced.
Studio: 20th Century Studios
Cast: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Norman Reedus
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Producers: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Arnon Milchan
DP: Adam Stone
Production Design: Chad Keith
Costume Design: Erin Benach
Editor: Julie Monroe
Score by: David Wingo