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Austin Butler stars, but Jodie Comer is the star

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Spoiler alert! This article contains spoilers for the movie ‘The Bikeriders’.

Beyond the aggressive engine revs, venomously masculine fight scenes and branded leather vests, “The Bikeriders” shows audiences that identity and community are often formed in the most dangerous spaces.

Filmed partly in Cincinnati and starring Austin Butler, Tom Hardy and Jodie Comer, ‘The Bikeriders’ is a raw and uncompromising look at the rise and fall of a fictionalized Midwestern motorcycle club called the Vandals. The film, directed by Jeff Nichols, is inspired by the 1968 photo book of the same name by photographer/videographer Danny Lyon.

Lyon’s book features portraits and personal vignettes of members of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, one of the oldest motorcycle clubs in the world. It also serves as historical reference material for Nichol’s honest and empathetic editing.

More ‘Bicycle Riders’: Austin Butler Talks ‘Delicious’ Skyline Chili While Riding Go-Karts During Filming in Cincy

‘The Bikeriders’ served, in a sense, as a memoir

Set in the 1960s, the film follows the Vandals, a vigilante group founded by Hardy’s character Johnny. Johnny is a truck driver bored with his middle-class life and decides to start a racing club for like-minded motorcycle enthusiasts, an idea he gets while watching Marlon Brando’s “Wild Ones.”

Over the past decade, we see the Vandals transform from a small Chicago motorcycle club full of average joes to a nationally syndicated criminal organization, despite Johnny’s futile attempts to maintain the crew’s original mission: brotherhood.

However, the film not only traces the history of the infamous motorcycle gang, but is also memorable, highlighting a brief but pivotal moment in Lyon’s life, when he sets out on a journey to study a group within the margins of our society.

Lyon’s character, Danny, played by Mike Faist, spends several years riding with the club, interviewing and photographing various members, including the film’s narrator, Kathy, played by Comer. Although Danny only speaks a few lines, his character is felt and seen throughout “The Bikeriders” as an outsider among outsiders.

His point of view forms the backdrop for the 1 hour and 56 minute film. Through his physical and metaphorical lens, viewers can peer into the violent underworld of the Vandals. Comer’s nasally southern Chicago accent accompanies viewers on their ride with the countercultural subgroup as they cultivate a sense of identity and community in a time marred by social and political unrest.

Austin Butler can’t shake “Elvis,” but it’s okay

“The Bikeriders” opens with Kathy opening up about her relationship with hot-headed club member Benny, played by Butler, who can’t seem to shake his rock ‘n’ roll persona from the 2022 film “Elvis.” Luckily it works for this role because Benny and Elvis share a desire for freedom.

Kathy tells Danny that she married Benny when she was 19, after he intimidated her then-boyfriend by hanging out outside her house on his helicopter.

Considering Butler’s good looks and Benny’s brooding behavior and tendency to live on the edge, it’s no wonder Kathy fell for him. Benny, our enigmatic protagonist, may seem like just another anxious bad boy. But you soon realize that, like Elvis, there is a deep loneliness and unpredictability lurking beneath the surface.

Between his daring power play with Kathy’s boyfriend and his joy ride through the cornfields of Greater Cincinnati (cue possible shots of the Purple People and Taylor Southgate bridges), it’s clear that Benny is the biggest wild card in the group. He drives wherever he wants, throwing caution and valid IDs to the wind. He fights whoever he wants, even though he almost has to amputate his leg after a brawl in a bar. He disappears whenever he wants, sometimes abandoning his loved ones.

At first you think it’s Kathy, the club, or his homoerotic relationship with the founder that he cares about most. But what Benny is really looking for is freedom. As he says, “I don’t ask anything from anyone,” and expect the same in return.

Yet he ends up in a pseudo-love triangle with Kathy and Johnny, who project their expectations onto the thrill seeker.

Johnny wants Benny to be his protege. He takes the mysterious young biker under his leather chap and eventually trains him to become the next leader of the Vandal. But Kathy wants Benny to leave the rebel lifestyle behind, fearing what will happen to them or who they will become if the gang gains a foothold.

Jodie Comer’s Character Is the Real Star of ‘The Bikeriders’

Unlike the rest of the Vandals, Lyon never interviews Benny. Instead, his story is told by Kathy, the voice of reason in the group and the real star of the film. Kathy is a strong-willed, independent woman who speaks of the club with disdain, resentment and nostalgia. Even though she’s not a biker, Kathy confidently asserts herself in the male-dominated pack that will only see her as Benny’s “old lady.”

Kathy provides a necessary vulnerability that is missing among the rough and loud men, reminding viewers that women exist in the motorcycle world and often fall victim to the activities of their male counterparts.

Giving a group of misfits a place where they belong

Through Lyon’s interviews, we also learn something about the backgrounds of the other vagabonds, and get a glimpse of what led them to the club.

Michael Shannon’s character Zipco talks about how he felt rejected by the US government because he never created the design for the Vietnam War. The eccentric Funny Sonny, played by Norman Reedus, is a hardcore biker from California who joins the Vandals because he likes their atmosphere. Then there’s The Kid, played by Toby Wallace, a neighborhood punk who dreams of riding with the Vandals to escape his abusive family.

Each character flees from a place where they do not belong, to a group that promises loyalty and kinship.

But as the years pass and the organization grows, so do the group’s motivations. What started as a gathering place for outsiders quickly turns sinister as new members climb the ranks. The desire for power and profit outweighed what brought them together.

Although I have no connection to motorcycle culture—I can’t even ride a traditional bicycle—I was enraptured by the Vandals’ stories and saddened by their losses. The Vandals are not good people. They’re shady rule breakers who paved the way for the dangerous criminals from FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.”

Yet I found myself drawn to them, shedding a tear for every life that came their way. I sympathized with their desperation to fit in and stand out. They are unruly and hide behind the anonymity of the label and the uniform of the Vandals. But by revving their engines, they also demand to be seen, respected and feared.

Ultimately, “The Bikeriders” created a space for themselves when the larger society wouldn’t. Space is destructive, dangerous and in no way politically correct or ‘safe’. But the motorcycle club gives these misfits a place to express themselves and their love for the open road, proving that at the end of the day, “everyone wants to be a part of something.”