By -

Masculinity does not mean anything concrete. It's a hunch, a vibe. In Mark Hanna's sacred words, "It's a fugazi."

But gather a bunch of men together and see them behaving like their own idea of masculinity. Intense, rough, impetuous, moved by instinct if that instinct is to bash someone’s head in. At a certain point in Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders, someone throws the first punch in a fight because he sees two groups standing up in front of each other. No thought, process or reason. He saw his mates in front of other weird dudes, and his guts told him to start the brawl. Men. And The Bikeriders is a film about men trying to be their own men.

In this case, it’s the Vandals, a fictionalised version of the notorious bikers gang Outlaws Motorcycle Gang. Led by the charismatic Johnny (Tom Hardy), a trucker with a family who just wanted to form a group for him and his mates to ride around.

Together, the Vandals are like wolves. A tight-knit pack of scary and loud animals. Individually, you notice their fragilities and insecurities. There’s an ocean of difference between Johnny’s boys and Tony Soprano’s people. You wouldn’t catch yourself alone with Paul Gualtieri, but might gladly throw a few beers with Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Brucie (Damon Herriman), Zipco (Michael Shannon), and Cockroach (Emory Cohen). They look like nice chaps.

Like in many of these stories, the framing starts with a woman. Kathy (Jodie Comer with a thick American midwest accent) is being interviewed by a photographer (Mike Faist) about her time with the gang, which she has experienced as the wife of the de-facto hero of this story, Benny (Austin Butler). With a cigarette dangling from her lips, Kathy opens up from the day she met Benny until the dismantling of the original group. She’s honest in her tales but never judgemental. At some point, the interviewer talks with the boys of the gang to listen to their thoughts and anecdotes, but the woman who observes enriches the story – she sees them for what they are, now what they want to be.

Butler plays Benny effortlessly. A cross between James Dean in every James Dean poster and a brooding samurai, he’s the lone wolf of the pack. A man driven only by his love to fight who doesn’t care about authority. He runs past the red lights and defies the police. The other members don’t wear their colours when not with the group. Not Benny; he never removes his colours, even if that attracts more trouble.

Benny does not cry. That’s the closest detail to his arc. He is smitten by Kathy (at least in her account), but the riding and the gang are more important to him. You get the sense he’ll never leave the group because, without his motorcycle, Benny might as well be dead, to Kathy’s chagrin. Johnny notices his devotion. In Kathy’s account, Benny goes about the world like Johnny wanted to – completely recklessly, disregarding any consequences. To Johnny, Benny is the purest form of masculinity. A poem riding on a chopper. Perfect, ethereal and unpredictable. And to Nichol’s credit, he never sees Benny in any other way. Not even when it hits the fan or when all is dead and dusted. Benny remains true to his own moral conviction; he just needs to shape his world.

The Bikeriders is a step forward in Nichols’ career, pursuing the large prestige picture. He reminds me of James Gray in that both filmmakers have idiosyncratic visionaries with a dedicated fan base who, despite more significant efforts, fail to deliver an untouchable classic. Here, Nichols does his best Goodfellas for an all-American story of lovable and complex outlaws. The film is punctuated by an excellent soundtrack of 1960s American pop classics, from the Shangri-las to Cream and Bo Dudley.

Martin Scorsese layers his films with visual and character details that add more complexity to the story he’s telling, making it more universal. Nichols has a simpler approach. The Bikeriders is a straightforward film about the men who didn’t see the worst side of them creeping in. I still think about Tom Hardy’s sorrowful face as he tells his wife he’ll surely bring eggs on the way back from the fight. This is the moment when the James Deans of the world were disappearing to make way for the Dennis Hoppers and the Peter Fondas. And it’s even sadder that none of them noticed it was coming. Maybe that’s the difference between The Bikeriders and Goodfellas. The former lacks the zest and humour of the latter. But it succeeds in being in complete reverence to its characters. Real men, like all of us. In the end, we see the rise of those who misunderstood the Vandals’ motto (if there ever was one), led with fiery fierceness by an unnamed young rider (Australian actor Toby Wallace) who becomes obsessed with the gang the moment he sees them riding down the avenue together. The power draws him in, but that was never the point, was he? What does he know? He’s not a wolf. He’s a different kind of man.

Verdict: 4 out of 5: This is a beautiful Shakespearean tragedy told in the tradition of the Great American story. Come for the flawless main cast and stay for the ride through lost America (and the Will Oldham cameo).

Ticket giveaway

LSJ and Rialto Distribution have 10 double passes to offer for the upcoming films Mr Blake At Your Service and Longlegs, in cinemas 18 July.

In Mr Blakes At Your Service a widowed British businessman (John Malkovich) takes a job as a butler of a manor house in France to keep alive the memories of his late French wife.  His life takes a turn as he navigates the eccentric behaviour of the lady of the manor and the household staff.  The arrival of this very British guest spurs them back to life, prompting them to start working together to restore the manor’s former beauty. The result will be a new lease of life for the Domaine de Beauvillier estate and everyone living on it.

Longlegs, from writer/director Oz Perkins comes  the most anticipated horror movie of the year.  FBI Agent Lee Harker is assigned to an unsolved serial killer case that takes an unexpected turn, revealing evidence of the occult. Harker discovers a personal connection to the killer and must stop him before he strikes again. Starring Nicolas Cage and Maika Monroe.

For a chance to win one of the double passes, email [email protected] with the title of the film you want on the subject line, by Monday 15 July.