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Film Reviews: Thelma & The Bikeriders

Arts Review2024-6-21By: Marc Glassman

 

Riding through the City

Thelma & The Bikeriders

By Marc Glassman

 

Thelma

Josh Margolin, director, and script

Starring: June Squibb (Thelma), Fred Hechinger (Danny), Richard Roundtree (Ben), Parker Posey (Gail), Clark Gregg (Alan), Malcolm McDowell (Harvey), Nicole Byer (Rochelle)

 

Zoomers, our time has arrived. It used to be a rarity when a film featured an older person in a leading role. But with Thelma coming out in theatres this week, people interested in the lives of Zoomers will have to choose between it and The Great Escaper, the Michael Caine-Glenda Jackson two-hander released just two weeks ago. 

It’s not as if you have to choose between the two films: each has its own special appeal. While The Great Escaper is British and filled with nostalgic memories of D-Day, Thelma is very American and has the feel of a caper film with its wit and clever plot twists. And while both films feature characters breaking out of old age homes, what they do while free is far different.

Thelma stars June Squibb as the titular lead and at 93, she must be the oldest actor to ever headline a film for the first time at such an advanced age. Though she didn’t appear in a film until she was 60 (in Woody Allen’s Alice), Squibb has a well-developed persona as a tough talking straight shooter—a true forthright American. Her appeal comes from the contrast of having the appearance of a prim and proper “old maid” while being absolutely the opposite—a totally uninhibited granny. 

Josh Margolin, the writer-director of the film, was inspired by his own grandmother, Thelma, the widow of filmmaker Ted Post, who is a free-spirited matriarch. Margolin’s intention with the film was to create a story in which his grandmother deals with scammers who are trying to take her money. It’s a good plot device as one can imagine that scenario happening to seniors, who are great at many things but don’t understand the intricacies of computers and are susceptible to internet fraud. 

June Squibb’s Thelma is fooled by Los Angeles digital swindlers at the beginning of the film, sending $10,000 to help her supposedly injured grandson, Danny. In truth, Danny (played winningly by Fred Hechinger) is actually perfectly fine as is his parents, Alan (a bland Clark Gregg) and Gail (a typically neurotic Parker Posey). Their concern is that Thelma is losing it—which adds to her motivation to get back the money. 

Margolin has cleverly set up the film to turn into a road warrior adventure thriller, although admittedly the hot rod is actually an old-age mobility scooter. No adventure film is complete without a partner and Thelma finds one when she visits her old friend, Ben (Richard Roundtree), a widower in an old-age home who is still reasonably strong—and he happens to have a great scooter. Margolin never loses the absurdity in his tale as we follow Thelma and Ben as they break out, driving through Los Angeles, the ultimate North American city ruled by its motorways. 

Thelma turns from road movie to a quirky thriller as our nonagenarian diva takes on a decidedly outré grifter (the legendary Malcolm McDowell in a superb cameo) at his game. It’s hard to imagine anyone beating Squibb’s Thelma, or Margolin’s grandmother, who is still alive at 104!

A charming film, Thelma has yet another reason to recommend it. This is the last film to feature Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft in Gordon Parks’ legendary Black Power film, who was still handsome and charismatic, playing with June Squibb. What a shame there will never be a sequel.

 

The Bikeriders

Jeff Nichols, director, and script

Based on the photo book by Danny Lyon

Starring: Jodie Comer (Kathy), Austin Butler (Benny), Tom Hardy (Johnny), Michael Shannon (Zipco), Mike Faist (Danny Lyon), Norman Reedus (Funny Sonny) Boyd Holbrook (Cal), Damon Herriman (Brucie), Beau Knapp (Wahoo), Emory Cohen (Cockroach)

 

Back in the mid Sixties, a young and very talented New York photographer named Danny Lyon decided to leave the American South where he had been shooting brilliant, now historic, images of the Civil Rights Movement documenting Martin Luther King’s non-violent campaign against racism. He felt the need to photograph something completely different but just as real as what was happening in the South, about a movement that was as revolutionary in its way as the one started by Dr. King. Lyon moved to Chicago to shoot the lives of a powerful motorcycle gang, whose anarchical appeal and wilful opposition to authority were attracting young rockers and outsiders in the Midwestern metropolis. 

Every city across North America found themselves with such gangs in the Sixties. Motorcycle gangs were the hottest thing in American popular culture. During that time, the sexy proto-punk girl group The Shangri-las were singing their classic hit “Leader of the Pack” about a teenager’s affair with a guy in a motorcycle gang, Hunter Thompson—later famous for his “Fear and Loathing” gonzo journalism books—was writing his great first book on the Hell’s Angels and maverick American director Roger Corman was making cult films about the Angels starring the young Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Peter Fonda. 

Jeff Nichols, an underrated American auteur who has made tough independent films with Matthew McConaughey, Michael Shannon, and Joel Edgerton, outdoes himself with The Bikeriders, a film inspired by Lyon’s classic photo book, which documented his time with a Chicago motorcycle gang during its peak romantic period. Nichols has created a narrative that encapsulates the time, with the Chicago Vandals replacing the Outlaws as the name of the gang. It’s the story of the Vandals through the eyes and heart of Kathy (Jodie Comer), an attractive working-class divorcé who falls in love with Benny (Austin Butler), a lanky James Dean lookalike, the minute she lays eyes on him. Nichols creates a non-sexual love triangle: Johnny (Tom Hardy), the Vandals leader, also needs Benny as his deputy and probable replacement, but Betty would prefer it if he quits the gang altogether. 

The meandering narrative of The Bikeriders follows Johnny, Benny, Kathy, and a crew of dissolute, tough but ultimately likeable gang members with names like Wahoo, Zipco and Cockroach as they fight, party and ride through a couple of Chicago winters and summers—just trying to enjoy themselves. But nothing stays the same: as the Vietnam War escalates, veterans come back, far more violent than before, with heavy drug problems, wanting to join the gang. Life becomes darker.

Nichols ties the narrative around his main trio by having Mike Faist play Danny Lyon interviewing Kathy back in the Sixties, when life was relatively innocent, and in the Seventies, after everything had changed. This gives the film a curiously objective stance. We see the story as something recalled—events from the past—and from the perspective of Kathy, who wasn’t at every event, being the wife of a gang member, not a Vandal. That distance allows the film to achieve a nearly mythic quality as the fights, rides and parties enjoyed by the gang don’t seem real—they’re events retold, the stuff of legends. 

Jeff Nichols has wanted to make The Bikeriders for a decade so it’s no surprise that the production is superb. The period detail is excellent throughout—from couches to lamps to clothes–as is the choice of music. Instead of “Leader of the Pack,” the film offers “Out in the Streets,” a great song by the Shangri-Las that wasn’t a hit; we hear: the funky Bo Diddley dance sensation “Roadrunner;” the down’n’dirty guitar instrumental “Raunchy;” the great Chicago blues song by Muddy Waters “Mannish Boy;” and just when some sentiment is needed, the lovely Fleetwoods classic “Come Softly to Me” is unleashed on the soundtrack. 

Nichols has chosen a superb cast of characters for the film. A crew of fine relatively unknown actors ranging from Norman Reedus (Funny Sonny) through Boyd Holbrook (Cal), to Damon Herriman (Brucie), and Emory Cohen (Cockroach) remain absolutely in character, giving authenticity to the Vandals. The leads are more than persuasive. Austin Butler, who was charismatic as Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s hit film last year is excellent as Danny, the almost inarticulate, existential biker, whose handsomeness entrances Kathy, and bravery attracts Johnny. Jodie Comer and Tom Hardy, a couple of brilliant British actors, totally nail the key characters of Kathy, the feisty women who loves Benny and Johnny, the tough, almost inarticulate guy who runs the gang. They don’t just get American dialogue—the two replicate mid-century Chicago in accents and attitude. I ought to know, having lived there as a kid back then.

The Bikeriders is the kind of American film that used to feel normal: straight, unpretentious, quietly authentic, and emotional. Now it’s a rarity. A real Indie film. And definitely worth acknowledging.

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