Movie Miscellany: 14 (The Bikeriders, La Chimera, Hounds)

Marlon Brando in 'The Wild One' (1953).
Marlon Brando in 'The Wild One' (1953).

The Bikeriders (dir. Jeff Nichols, 2024)


Jodie Comer's deceptively funny narration is part of the charm of this twilight parable of the American Midwest, where the open road and bar-stool brawling were first invented (at least if Jeff Nichols is to be believed). Austin Butler, a likeably vapid actor, is eye-catching as Benny: handsome, rowdy, and loyal. Tom Hardy – frazzled and sometimes menacing – is Johnny, a one-time racer who founded the biker-club, The Vandals, out of boredom after watching a tv re-run of Marlon Brando's The Wild One (1953). Nichols, intelligently torn in his affections, enjoys playing the mythology – and self-mythologising – of the club against the chaotic, goofy, and increasingly brutal actuality of its evolution: from a loose association of beer-chugging, punch-throwing suburban outcasts to a dangerous criminal organization, held together through violence. One result is that whatever sociological insights the film might seem to offer in the age of the Proud Boys and other gun-toting white supremacist groupings is tempered by Nichols's natural sympathy for the original riders and the muddled, road-roaring camaraderie that first drew them together. The warmth of those early days remains palpable, even as the misogyny and explosiveness implicit in the club's structure begin to dictate its direction and character – and all as the Vietnam war rolls on, a long nightmare of televised atrocity. The Bikeriders may ultimately lack the unageing cohesion and vitality of Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), a clear influence, or indeed some of Nichols's own earlier features, but this is hardly grounds for damnation: Nichols is one of America's most questing and eloquent of fabulists. We watch his films and recall, sometimes with an uneasy shudder, how it feels to dream old dreams anew.



La Chimera (dir. Alice Rohrwacher, 2023)


A roaming movie-ballad, La Chimera revels in the roguish exploits and mock-heroic feats of a crew of archaeological pirates, scavenging the Tuscan countryside for ancient grave-sites that might be looted for undiscovered booty, while evading the clutches of local authorities. Slapstick police chases and scenes of festive merriment are woven into a larger tapestry exploring – in its delicate, esoteric way – the necessities and ingenuities of the tombaroli themselves, as they hustle and stretch their sparse resources in an unending attempt to outwit the penury that lingers over much of the surrounding region. Josh O'Connor, one of Britain's most versatile of on-screen talents, inhabits the role of Arthur, an inscrutable English grave-robber with a painful romantic past and a seemingly supernatural gift for divining the location of the valuable Etruscan burial-goods that lie entombed in the earth below his feet. As a kind of journeying anti-hero – caught between comradeship and isolation, gentle sensitivity and callous anger, the underworld of love-lit, millenia-old memorial artefacts and the black market above where he trades the same for cash – he resembles a modern-day Orpheus or Theseus, compulsively searching for his vanished lover, Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello), whose memory, a frail Ariadne's thread, spools through his days and draws him onwards. Rohrwacher, however, resists the grandiosity that might otherwise accompany such resonances, preferring instead to illuminate the human loves and yearnings that time will always bury, even as the glow of their mystery remains undimmed. Utterly beguiling, this is also, in part, a subversive aesthetic. Perhaps Rohrwacher herself puts it best (in an interview with Sight & Sound): “Archaeology teaches us that civilizations die, that capitalism will one day end up in a museum, that my life doesn't belong to me but is part of a stratification that  will continue when I'm no longer around... I actually find that quite a comforting thought.”



Hounds (dir. Kamal Lazraq, 2023)


The muted hilarity of this film does little to alter the hellishness of its vision. In an effort to lift themselves out of destitution, a father (Abdellatif Masstouri) and son (Ayoub Elaid) step up to assist a local, small-time criminal in a power-play, which quickly – through a series of often comical mishaps and miscalculations – goes badly wrong for all involved. Paradoxically, the leanness of the plot lends heft and ferocity to the frantic actions that unfold, and to the soulful faces of the characters themselves, shadowy and hunger-haunted, as they flicker in and out of a darkness that feels unendurable. Hounds is that rarest of beasts: a cross-breed of masterful horror-movie and unflinching photo-essay, achieving its disturbing effects merely by observing the desperate, spiralling circumstances of its protagonists with precision. Lazraq deserves a great deal of credit for the singular crime-caper that ensues, bathing the night-scenes in noirish reds and violets, while navigating wider questions of necessity and choice, tarnished decisions and redeeming acts, with the flair of a great novelist. The central performances are unforgettably vivid. With his sinewy frame and air of dark-eyed, tearless regret, Masstouri seems the very embodiment of hopeless struggle, a figure for whom dispossession is visceral and quotidian, an atmosphere he has no choice but to breathe. For all the spasms of morbid humour along the way, it seems almost inevitable, but no less disquieting, that the film should end with charred flesh heaped and mixed with roadside rubbish, humanity transformed into pickings for dogs: an image reflecting the ugliness and ordinariness of the world Lazraq depicts, where already wounded lives are inexorably trapped and mutilated by a poverty that kills. 

Ciarán O'Rourke // June 2024