Austin Butler Exudes Cool Charisma in ‘The Bikeriders’: Early Review

Austin Butler as “Benny” in ‘The Bikeriders’.
Kyle Kaplan

3 stars (out of 4)

Here’s an underrated trait of a legit movie star: The ability to exude cool charisma just by silently sitting on a barstool and taking a drag from a cigarette.

This is how Austin Butler‘s character, Benny, is introduced in the first moment of The Bikeriders. He’s quietly minding his own business when two burly men approach him and demand that he remove his well-worn denim-and-black leather jacket emblazoned with the words Vandals Chicago. “You’d have to kill me before I take off this jacket,” he replies with the slightest bit of a smirk. Violence erupts as Benny tries with all his might to keep his vow.

Who is this guy and what could possibly stoke such unhinged emotions? Welcome to The Bikeriders, which held its world premiere on Thursday, August 31, at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival. Despite its serene title, the film is a fierce drama chronicling the rise of a fictional 1960s Midwestern motorcycle club.

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The club is called The Vandals. And as one might surmise from that riveting prologue, its colorful members — led by the short-fused Johnny (Tom Hardy) — are devoutly loyal and not to be trifled with.

In an amusing montage, we meet Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Michael Shannon), Zipco (Michael Shannon) and Cockroach (Emery Cohen). And then there’s Benny, the most stoic and dangerous rider of all. When Kathy (Jodie Comer), a tough-talking comely local, meets him in a dive bar, she goes against every impulse and lets him take her for a literal ride. She’s fascinated. Horrified. And instantly smitten.

Austin Butler Exudes Cool Charisma in The Bikeriders

Austin Butler
Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

The Bikeriders is mostly told from Kathy’s perspective as she recounts the club’s story to a photographer (Mike Faist) compiling a book about the group. (Sorry to say the British Comer does the aforementioned recounting in a distractingly affected Chicaaaahhhgo dialect.)

Kathy ends up marrying Benny after just five weeks. Over the next decade, she attempts to navigate both his reckless behavior and his blind allegiance to his mentor Johnny as The Vandals evolve from endearing outsiders to a more sinister gang. She ultimately wants domestication and a move to Florida to escape the madness. If only Johnny weren’t so hell-bent on rallying his troupe to enact revenge on anyone who dares disrespect him.

And so it goes. To be sure, The Bikeriders is more of an atmospheric vibe than an edge-of-your-motorcycle-seat thrill ride. Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Loving, Mud, Midnight Special) throws his focus on immersion so the audience can soak in the rich look, feel and sounds of the subculture of 1960s motorcycle riders down to the smell of the burning rubber emanating from those engines. The stylistic choice is admirable — some film buffs will no doubt compare the moody storytelling to classic outlaw Westerns — albeit mostly frustrating.

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It’s understood that The Vandals adhere to codes and honor and decorum and unwritten laws, etc. etc., but the club’s expansion beyond Chicago still shouldn’t be such a heavy plot point. For all that easy riding on the open road, the narrative never quite travels in a totally satisfying direction.

But Comer’s character won’t be the only one transfixed by her surroundings. There’s something ridiculously appealing about watching all these rugged actors show off such alpha-male machismo — they did their own riding, per the studio press notes — and, in a few surprising instances, bare their sensitive souls. (Everyone associated with the Fast and the Furious saga should take note on how to pull off this feat!) The ensemble meshes so well together that no one 100 percent stands out from the pack, let alone earns enough meaty screen time to merit serious awards consideration. That says a lot given all the Oscar-nominated talent on-hand.

Still, there’s a reason why Nichols opens and closes his film with Benny’s arc. Butler is the real deal with a future brighter than any bike headlight. He doesn’t utter much dialogue and yet his smoldering presence speaks volumes. No Elvis? No problem. Thanks to that engaging aura, he’s still capable of leaving audiences all shook up.

The Bikeriders, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, opens in theaters December 1.

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