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‘The Bikeriders,’ the birth of a subculture on two wheels

This image released by Focus Features shows Jodie Comer, left, and Austin Butler in a scene from “The Bikeriders”

Still images have been a source of wonder and mythology in the films of Jeff Nichols.

“Mud,” Nichols’ Twain-soaked Mississippi fable, seemed derived from the magical sight of a boat held aloft by a tree. “Loving,” about a ‘60s interracial marriage, took inspiration from tender Life magazine photographs taken of the real-life couple. Nichols’ latest, “The Bikeriders,” is based on photographer Danny Lyon’s 1968 book of the same name, for which he spent four years with a Chicago motorcycle club.

It’s not hard to see what Nichols saw in Lyon’s black-and-white stills. There’s the stylish raw materials — the chrome bikes, the slicked back hair, the black leather jackets. But there’s also a just emerging antiauthoritarian, easy-riding spirit and camaraderie. Like the central figures of “Loving,” they are classically drawn outsiders who encapsulate something glorious and uneasy about freedom in America.

In the exhilarating first half of “The Bikeriders,” which opens in theaters Friday, Nichols is less compelled to build a narrative around his bike gang, the Vandals (based on the Outlaws) than summoning an intoxicating atmosphere reminiscent of those old photographs. “The Bikeriders” eventually becomes saddled with heavier plot mechanics — you can almost sense his riders growing weary from having to strap narrative devices onto their bikes. The movie wants to ride, but it’s not sure how much story to pack for the trip. But this is a vivid dramatization of the birth of an American subculture.

The framing device Nichols settles on is Lyon, himself, played by Mike Faist, who’s conducting interviews for his book. His conversations with a woman named Kathy ( Jodie Comer ) bookend and sporadically narrate the movie.

Kathy, also based on a real person, seems at first an unlikely spokesperson for the gang. She speaks with a thick Illinois accent (an actorly distraction throughout) and has no affection for motorcycle riders. But one night at a bar, she sees Benny ( Austin Butler ) across the smokey room and, even if she doesn’t admit it at that moment, falls for him. Again, it’s not hard to see why. Butler is by now well removed from Elvis Presley but the suppleness with which he can sink into mid-century America is no less apparent. Benny drives Kathy home, parks his bike outside the place and patiently waits for her boyfriend to skip town.

Nichols, a devotee of films like “Hud” and “Cool Hand Luke,” is a filmmaker who works very consciously within classic American idioms. In Butler he has his James Dean, making Tom Hardy his Marlon Brando. Hardy plays Johnny, Benny’s best pal and the one who starts up and presides over the Vandals. (The “whaddya got” clip of Brando from “The Wild One” is even briefly seen on a small TV in “The Bikeriders.”)

The Vandals, as a club, start about as simply as kids might call a tree house to order. They’re a bunch of guys who like riding motorcycles and like talking about them. Simple as that. But men come like moths to a flame, attracted by the tough lifestyle, the cool jackets with patches and a way out of mainstream America. Among them are Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Cockroach (Emory Cohen), Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus) and Zipco (Michael Shannon). JAKE COYLE, Film Writer, MDT/AP

“The Bikeriders,” a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for language throughout, violence, some drug use and brief sexuality. Running time: 116 minutes. ★★★

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