Arts & CultureFilm

Marking Two Years at Independent Picture House with ‘The Bikeriders’

Thoughts on the passage of time

A still from The Bikeriders movie
Tom Hardy (left) and Austin Butler in ‘The Bikeriders.’ (Courtesy of New Regency)

As you turn right onto Greensboro Street off of Sugar Creek Road, you’re met with the juxtaposition of an old version of Charlotte that seems to be actively fading as a new city takes its place. An abandoned lot that was once home to a supermarket seemingly now only houses two crows picking at the carcass of some less fortunate creature — possibly a morbid yet apt analogy of gentrification. 

As you make your way toward the local theater at 4237 Raleigh Street, you see Blackbox Theater, a newer music venue that has become the epicenter of the local electronic dance music scene, followed by more construction that will eventually become a new development called The Pass, hosting tenants such as Soul Gastrolounge, Borderline Bar & Billiards, and an event space called PINE. 

Currently open amongst all of this construction is Locker Room, a vintage sportswear shop that opened back in February. 

This 12-acre mixed-use development project promises more retail shops, entertainment and office spaces. The area currently claims NoDa, but time will only tell what new nicknames will be tossed around as it nears completion. 

I made these observations on my way to Independent Picture House, where my wife and I were looking forward to watching Jeff Nichols’ new feature film, The Bikeriders, in celebration of Independent Picture House’s two-year anniversary. 

What struck me upon leaving the theater was how the film captured the idea of the passage of time — looking out across things you think you recognize and how often change leads to the death of an idealized past. 

But let’s drop the morose tone for a second and make one thing clear: Independent Picture House is a welcome and positive change for the local community, and the local film community especially. Anyone who mourned the closing of the Regal Manor Twin theaters on Providence Road in 2020 has surely already made time to check out Independent Picture House and likely found it to be a superior replacement.   

In June 2022, the nonprofit Charlotte Film Society opened The Independent Picture House with a promise to operate 365 days a year and focus on independent, foreign and arthouse films. The group also manages Charlotte Film Festival, a long-running annual film festival set to take place from Sept. 24-29 this year

Before their two-year anniversary, IPH announced its upcoming expansion into part of what is currently the Charlotte Art League’s space that will include a fourth auditorium — its biggest theater yet at 145 seats. They plan to not only show films in the new theater but also host local community events such as spoken-word poetry, live music, improv/comedy and other performance-based and educational events. 

A rendering of the expanded Independent Picture House. (Courtesy of IPH)

In regards to Jeff Nichols’ film, The Bikeriders, which brought us to IPH on this mid-June evening, the director of Take Shelter (2011), Loving (2016), Midnight Special (2016), and Mud (2012) hasn’t lost a step. An underrated auteur, Nichols’ work brings to mind a young Martin Scorsese — but not in the ways that you’d think. 

Like Scorsese, Nichols defies classification, but when you’re looking at his work, you know it’s him. Also like Scorsese, he keeps a revolving cast of actors — Michael Shannon as his Deniro, or DiCaprio for Scorcese’s younger fans. And while Scorsese has long spoken his truth as a New York City native, so Nichols speaks his as a Little Rock, Arkansas home towner.

I’m not the only one to draw a throughline here. Michael Shannon is quoted as stating, “Twenty years from now I may be able to say, ‘I worked with Jeff Nichols’, and he may be looked at the way Martin Scorsese is looked at now, so that’s exciting.”

These comparisons are especially apt given that The Bikeriders often feels like a riff on Scorcese’s 1990 classic Goodfellas, but through a vastly different lens of Americana. 

Nichols began his filmmaking journey after graduating from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a school that has given us Eastbound and Down’s Jody Hill & Danny McBride. His first full-length film was Shotgun Stories, starring Michael Shannon — the pair’s first collaboration. 

The story of The Bikeriders, based on a photo book by Danny Lyon, has been in the Nichols family for a while now. The first stab at the work was made by his brother Ben Nichols of long-running alt-country band Lucero, whose 2005 song of the same name was on their album Nobody’s Darling. The song recounts the opening plot synopsis of the film…

Kathy met a girlfriend at a place around Grant/ Swore if she got out alive she’d not go back again/ Fellas didn’t know her and they scared her half to death/ Hand prints on her jeans, she would have just got up and left…

‘The Bikeriders’ director Jeff Nichols (middle) with stars Jodie Comer and Austin Butler. (Creative Commons)

Clearly the work had lived in Jeff’s mind for some time as well, as Michael Shannon once told him, “You’ve been talking about that damn idea for so long. You’re never gonna make that shit.” And all these years later, here we are. 

Shannon’s inclusion in the film is a peculiar one, as the 49-year-old actor plays a character who, in the midst of the 1960s, deplores the idea that the was unable to go to Vietnam to fight due to a failed psych evaluation. This anomaly brings to mind the odd casting of a 47-year-old Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, whose character is a childhood friend of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, which would make him 21 years old conservatively. 

Good cinema makes you forget about these sorts of flaws, with a wide enough brush painting over the blemishes. If anything, Shannon’s inclusion reminds us just how long this idea has been kicking around for Jeff Nichols. Perhaps Shannon gave him so much shit because he was anxious he would age out of the role. 

Without spoilers, The Bikeriders tells the story of how a small-time biker gang evolves over the course of a decade. It starts off quaint — a crew of guys racing their dirtbikes, but eventually becomes a violent motorcycle gang named The Vandals, led by Johnny Davis, played by an understated Tom Hardy. 

He’s joined by a ragtag group of Chicago misfits, including Benny Bauer, played by Austin Butler in an even more understated performance. The film zags through time from the mid- to late-’60s into the mid-’70s. Kathy Bauer, played by Jodie Comer, serves as a narrator of sorts, telling her story to photojournalist Lyon, who traveled on and off with the gang while documenting their everyday activities. 

The motorcycle club, once only focused on drinking and other shenanigans, gets slowly uprooted by returning Vietnam vets and the burgeoning violence of the 1970s. 

The film never truly explodes, just gently revs across the Midwest plains until it slides to a horrific stop. That may be viewed as the flaw of the film, not embracing the level of violence we expect in modern filmmaking, but it feels more realistic to the timeframe — an exercise in the filmmaking of the 1960s and ’70s, ala Easy Rider

And just as Kathy and Benny constantly wrestle with their place amongst The Vandals, my wife and I discussed the film against the changing backdrop of the Charlotte skyline. Things will always change and all change isn’t exactly progress. Good art will make you do that. 

And if Independent Picture House is a sign of positive progress in a rapidly changing city, then I’m willing to stick around for it. 

Support Independent Picture House by making a donation or simply seeing a movie there. The theater is currently running a series called “Summer of ’84,” showcasing films that helped that year redefine cinema, including like Red Dawn, Body Double, The Brother From Another Planet, The Natural, Purple Rain and other gems. Visit independentpicturehouse.org for more info. 


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