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Review by Rich Cline |
dir-scr Jeff Nichols
prd Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Arnon Milchan
with Austin Butler, Jodie Comer, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman, Norman Reedus, Emory Cohen, Toby Wallace, Beau Knapp, Karl Glusman
release UK Oct.23 lff,
23/US 20th Century 1h56
Is it streaming?
Based on a book of photographs and interviews from 1965 to 1973, this artfully crafted film explores motorcycle subculture as a makeshift family. Writer-director Jeff Nichols shapes this material into a strongly involving exploration of masculinity and identity, allowing the sharply drawn characters to exist in remarkable complexity, free from pushy narrative demands. The performances are loose and often lyrical, even as they hold us at an arm's length.
In 1965 Chicago, Kathy (Comer) speaks to photographer Danny (Faist) about how she was instantly smitten by the soulful Benny (Butler), who rides with the Vandals alongside the club's leader Johnny (Hardy). Kathy loves the bikes too, but wishes Benny wasn't quite so dedicated to the group. And Johnny is hoping Benny will take his role. Over the years, the club begins to look more like a gang of thugs, as violence becomes part of their life, brought in by interlopers from other groups like Sunny (Reedus) or chippy young upstarts like the Kid (Wallace).
Skilfully evoking the period, Nichols makes pointed references to The Wild One and Easy Rider, while Kathy comments on how the club's trouble began between beer drinkers and pot smokers. Adam Stone's cinematography beautifully captures life in the open air, accompanied by the rumble of enormous engines. And the costumes and styling sharply recreate Danny Lyon's photographs. Without much plot, it's fascinating to watch Kathy and Johnny pile their own expectations on Benny.
Butler has a riveting on-screen presence; Benny barely speaks but watches everyone, plotting his own path amid pressure from the two people he loves most. Hardy doesn't say much more, but expertly conveys Johnny's quiet reluctance to the weight of leadership. By contrast, because Kathy narrates the story, Comer has a larger, more vibrantly multi-faceted role as a strong-willed woman trying to protect her man without him realising it. And among the colourful side roles, Reedus and Shannon steal their own moments.
It's chilling to watch this group of men create a family together and then transform from guys who simply love their motorbikes into a violent group of thugs. It's perhaps simplistic to think that this is a natural thing for men to do when they get together. But each shift comes from a perceived threat from outside, driven by impulsive protective reactions. These elements of the film are intriguing, but create a distance for the viewer, making this a vivid period portrait that has little resonance beyond the underlying affections between the characters.
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© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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