This preview of The Bikeriders comes from the film’s European premiere at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival. The film will be released in December.
Elvis Presley’s sadly unfulfilled ambition for his movie career was to be the next James Dean. So it’s an ironic coincidence that Austin Butler, who played Elvis in 2022’s Best Picture Oscar nominee Elvis, should with his next role take direct aim at the kind of simmering yet poised, unutterably cool and devastatingly handsome role that James Dean typified in the 1950s — and score a bullseye. It is absolutely ridiculous how good he looks in The Bikeriders.
The movie is a motorcycle-gang drama set in the 1960s, starring Butler as Benny, a laconic yet hotheaded member of a Chicago biker club, the Vandals. As Benny, Butler has artfully mussed, greased blonde hair and a scruffy goatee. He wears many layers of frayed, often sleeveless denim and leather, and rings on most of his fingers. He smokes. He plays pool. He leans on things a lot. He’s a man of few words who mostly mooches around the scene lankily, or stares into the middle distance with moody intensity. But sometimes he bursts into violent action.
And of course he rides a huge, growling chopper. (Be sure to see The Bikeriders in the loudest theater you can find, if you want to feel every bark and roar from the bikes, and every swooning Shangri-Las needle drop in your ribcage.) He has a signature move where he rides his bike one-handed in an absurdly cool, offhand way, like this:
Here’s another still of the one-handed bike-riding thing. This shot is actually a direct quote from a 1968 photojournalism book, also called The Bikeriders, which the movie is based on. Director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special) first saw the book 20 years ago and had been thinking about adapting it for a long time, because of its themes of masculinity and identity, but also because it looked so cool. So does his movie. So does Austin Butler.
The Bikeriders is a familiar, Goodfellas-like tale of working-class, outsider men in midcentury America looking for brotherhood and a sense of belonging, and eventually being eaten up by corruption and violence. But Butler isn’t our garrulous, fast-talking guide to this world, like Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill. He’s the stillness at the center of the movie. The chatty voice-over that propels the story actually comes from his wife, Kathy, played (with an absolutely outrageous Chicago accent) by Jodie Comer.
Alongside Comer, the heavy-lift, capital-A acting in The Bikeriders is done by Tom Hardy as gang boss Johnny. Hardy does that quizzical, menacing-yet-soulful, raspy-voiced thing that he’s so good at. Johnny loves Benny in a way that’s both touching and a little scary. In their scenes together, Butler just stands there almost silently and soaks Hardy’s intensity up. It ought to be too passive and one-sided, but instead it’s magnetic, because of Butler’s presence, his quelled energy, his burning eyes, and his Oh my God just look at that hair.
Butler has the least to do of the movie’s triumvirate of leads, and his character is the simplest, to the point of being more of an icon than a real person. But it doesn’t matter. If Elvis left you in any doubt, The Bikeriders seals it: This guy is a movie star, and this is a movie-star performance. He never looks less than amazing, and his sheer magnetism draws the rest of the film into his orbit.
The Bikeriders is a film of old-fashioned, simple pleasures: great tunes, perfect costumes, myth-making shots, and a cast of great character actors really going for it. (Including, but not limited to, Michael Shannon, West Side Story’s Mike Faist, Justified’s Damon Herriman, and a completely unrecognizable Norman Reedus as a shaggy Californian wildman biker.) It’s a film about looking at the gorgeous, unknowable people on the screen — and that one gorgeous, unknowable person in particular — just as Hardy’s character does at one point with Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and thinking: What would it be like to be them?
The Bikeriders will be released in theaters Dec. 1.