The Bikeriders, a Motorcycle Club Film, Highlights a Positive Woman’s Role


When selecting movies to screen at the 50th Telluride Film Festival this past August, “The Bikeriders” by director/writer Jeff Nichols was making its premiere. Not only the stellar cast of Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, and Michael Shannon captured my attention but also the uniqueness of telling a man’s story with a strong female point of view. The film charts the rise and fall over ten years of the Chicago suburb-based Outlaw Motorcycles Club that ultimately changed from a local riding club to a disturbingly violent gang. The club’s founder and leader, Johnny (Tom Hardy), struggles to enforce the rules he’s making; Benny (Austin Butler) is his captivating but dangerously unpredictable follower; it’s Kathy (Jodie Comer), the wife of Benny, who has the club all figured out—she thinks they’re all idiots. She’s written as a strong-willed character in a yin-yang situation with Benny as he gravitates toward Johnny, somewhat of a father figure. Nichols has said this is not your typical love triangle in which two guys are vying over a girl; he thought it would be interesting for a woman, Kathy, and the club leader, Johnny, to fight over a young man, Benny.

Blending comedy, violence, and moments of tenderness while exploring the biker code of loyalty, Nichols creates an intriguing modern story of a gangster film told uniquely from a woman’s perspective. There’s so much to appreciate here. Kathy’s role as a strong woman and a role model is a reason to champion the film. The screenplay allows her to stand up for what she believes is right, making her own decisions, while solving her own problems without a male savior.

In looking back from a woman’s point of view and my experiences with motorcycles, growing up in Los Angeles, motorcycles were standard; their presence was like no other on the highways, especially the 405 freeway. My father would remark, “Watch those bikers for me, kids,” as he was always on high alert with his driving when they were close to his family, as the bikers were known to dart in between traffic. As the oldest of five, he usually depended on me as a lookout. Seeing the Hells Angels riding together was an ominous sight to behold, as their ultra-loud sound is both deafening and exciting. What fascinated me were their black leather jackets with their iconic logo, very cool black leather biker hats, and leather side-fringed pants.

During my high school years in Nebraska, living out in the country, it was normal to ride motorcycles. I knew classmates who had Harley Davidson bikes, and my parents would let me ride on them occasionally, but never at night. Despite having lived in the Chicago suburbs for most of my life, where the film takes place, I had no knowledge of the motorcycle club or its saga. As you can imagine, my interest in the film was high.

Nichols introduced the film during the Telluride Film Festival and participated in a discussion. He spoke about Danny Lyon, the photojournalist who wrote the photo book about the Midwest club on which the film is based, and also joined the club. Nichols has been intrigued by the book for 20 years. He also mentioned the newest edition’s foreword and that Lyon tried to find out what happened to the club, saying he talked to some of the old riders. He was told that was the end of the club he rode with in 1965, as they now refer to him and the original members as “the old Outlaws.” That gave him the idea of how to shape the film: watching a small group of friends in a social club throughout the sixties that grows beyond their abilities and turns into a motorcycle gang by the early seventies.

Nichols told me he felt fortunate to have cast Austin Butler before “Elvis” came out and put him in high demand. I mentioned that I was reporting on the Telluride Film Festival for Roger Ebert’s website. He had nothing but praise for Roger and said he was very grateful for making his top ten list for the film “Shotgun Stories” (2007), as it changed his life, giving him an honor that encouraged him as a filmmaker. 

Our conversation and his film sparked my curiosity to know more, especially about why he chose to tell a male’s story from a female gaze, and also to discuss the intricacies of making a motorcycle film using bikes from the ’50s and ’60s, as I know those bikes are very different from today’s bikes.

Clearly, this is a guy’s story focusing on a club or brotherhood that protects each other at all costs. The women in that era had very different roles; they usually rode on the backs of the bikes, prepared meals, and cared for the children, as they were not involved in the inner circle of the boys’ club or the decision-making. And they were less likely to be involved in violence. Kathy is written as a strong female character, one who serves as a role model for writing a progressive women’s character as self-sufficient, and not having a male savior.  

During my Zoom interview with Jeff Nichols, I asked him why he wanted to tell this story from a woman’s point of view. He said that the ultimate truth is Kathy is the most interesting person in the book. He fell in love with the way she talked about herself, her relationship with Benny, and her relation to the club, including the biker guys. She was funny but also shockingly honest. There was no filter. It could be who she was then or because she talked into Danny Lyon’s reel to-reel tape recorder. Another reason she’s the perfect person to view this club and these people is that she is both an outsider by the benefit of being a woman and an insider because she is intimately involved in this club. So, with hindsight, only a woman could have this special kind of access.

Knowing this is a fictionalized story of the book, I asked Nichols about the love triangle aspect, as the woman is not the center. He explained that it was the biggest kind of creative work he did because their relationship and the love triangle wasn’t in the book. He took a mythological approach to Benny, mirrored in having the leader of this club, Johnny, building a kind of Frankenstein monster that one day will rise up and consume him. Johnny knows he’s not built for the world they’re going into.

Johnny is in his 50s. He’s got his hair greased. Even his clothes, how he dresses, and the bike he rides, show he’s not one of these new guys, and he feels himself separating from the club. It made sense that he would be drawn to Benny, a young man who would ultimately become the leader. Johnny continues talking about Kathy, as she held the tension that Johnny’s character couldn’t enunciate, which was beautiful, amazing, and completely absurd. There’s so much about American masculinity, and Kathy is the best one trying to interpret that. 

Comer’s work here is impressive as she’s the one so often with the moral and intellectual upper hand. Nichols said, “That is one of the best parts of that love triangle in that relationship dynamic. This woman is sitting there dealing with these men who can do amazing things and can be incredibly beautiful, attractive, and alluring. Still, they need help to do simple things in terms of understanding themselves or enunciating themselves, particularly when talking about their masculinity.”

I find it fascinating that Nichols has such an astute consciousness of women in his writing. As Johnny, a man of few words, is shown to solve most of his problems with the club through violence or intimidation, he’s totally at a loss for words, shocked that a woman would confront him. It’s both enlightening for women and perceptive to see that women can sometimes cut to the chase despite men’s macho exteriors.

Women haven’t often had a strong POV in biker films. Take 1966’s “The Wild Angels” with Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, and Bruce Dern. Sinatra’s role centered on trying to figure out a moody Peter Fonda as a boyfriend. At times he said he loved her, and then we’d see him go off with another woman from the gang who was clad only in a bra and panties, leaving her in tears. In that era, women were portrayed as playthings—screeching, laughing, dancing, and pouring bottles of alcohol all over each other while wearing little clothing. Sinatra was shown as a pouty, sad person who took orders from Fonda without blinking an eye. When looking at women’s roles here today, they are cringeworthy.

The movie “Hell’s Angels on Wheels” (1967) starred Adam Roarke, Jack Nicholson, and Sabrina Scharf. Roger Ebert wrote: “This actually isn’t such a bad movie. Sure, it’s an exploitation picture, manufactured on a low budget to cash in on the current boom in motorcycle gangs. Sure, it has all the obligatory clichés, like an orgy and a couple of brawls and a lot of beer and pot and animalistic behavior. What did you expect?” What he did praise was the realism, as the cast included the bike clubs from Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco, and the president of the Hells Angels himself, Sonny Barker. However, he has no lines, though he also served as a consultant. I would agree with his review, as the movie is grittier, and by utilizing so many more riders, the group much more impressive, although Scharf’s female role was that of a ditz, as she would change her mind constantly. I’m not sure if it was because of the drug use or if that was her nature. The other women were portrayed the same way, wearing little clothing, giggling, and appearing to have a good time.

Viewing these ’60s biker films was actually nostalgic for me as it brought back memories of interviewing Peter Fonda in 2010 in a Chicago suburb after a screening of his motorcycle film “Easy Rider” (1969) during a fan event. What struck me was that some of the people who came to have him sign their helmets, bikes, and other cycle paraphernalia could have actually been or were in the Chicago Outlaws Club, which is now the second-largest bike club in the world. I have great memories of hosting the audience Q and A with him. What resonated with me were his stories about the filming with director and actor Dennis Hopper. Yes, he confirmed there was an actual budget for the marijuana consumed in the movie, which he laughed about, as did the packed crowd. He also spoke about the tall handlebars of the bikes in the ’60s, as they were so high, causing his arms to be in constant pain. He also mentioned the bikes weighed over a thousand pounds.

Roger Ebert gave “Easy Rider” four stars, writing, “And someday it was inevitable that a great film would come along, utilizing the motorcycle genre, the same way the great Westerns suddenly made everyone realize they were a legitimate American art form. “Easy Rider” is the picture.”

In mentioning the fan event with Fonda to Nichols, I told him what Fonda had said about his arm aching from the tall handlebars. Nichols then said the bikes they used were from the ’50s, ’60s, and even one from the ’40s. They presented many challenges as they all operated differently. He also told me there was a night when Austin Butler, at a very low speed, was turning around at the end of the street. He hit a patch of wet leaves, and his bike just flipped right out from under him, but the throttle was still engaged. So, all they saw was a headlight just spinning. Luckily, Austin jumped out of the way, but it was very, very challenging using vintage motorcycles.

As a female film critic who’s covered movies for over 20 years, I always appreciate it when filmmakers intertwine more women into a film’s storyline, especially one of this nature, as the number of male characters far exceeds the number of women. Kathy is an example of a strong, positive, level-headed, independent female character willing to go the distance for not only her husband Benny’s well-being but also because she realizes the club isn’t safe for herself. There were certainly women like her in motorcycle clubs all over the country. Now their stories get to be told too.

“The Bikeriders” will be released on June 21st, 2024.

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