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Journeys to the Wasteland

Journeys to the Wasteland

The Bikeriders and Furiosa chart the enduring appeal of the open road.

Mayor Freddie O’Connell’s decisive electoral victory indicated Nashville has no compunction with the progressive ideas that have irrevocably altered metro areas like Chicago and San Francisco. However, its residents have proven remarkably skeptical about far-reaching transit reforms (see the embarrassing landslide defeat of the Barry Era “Let’s Move” campaign).

As local media personality and former candidate for Metro Council Dan Fitzpatrick alluded to in a recent tweet, the one point all but the fringe of Nashville voters can agree on is antipathy for the city’s transit fetishists—the type of people who yawp in exultation when WeGo deep cleans bus seats but shrug off the rote violence plaguing the service’s terminals. 

It wasn’t so long ago that the thrill of travel by car and motorcycle was the territory of lefty exuberance. Jack Kerouac wrote the seminal Beat novel about it a decade before Two-Lane Blacktop, Five Easy Pieces, and Easy Rider kicked off the counterculture and brought Hollywood into its most free-wheeling and fertile artistic period. 

Amid such hallowed works of American culture, no place exists for the equivalent of contemporary transit stans. They are an outgrowth of the Left who revere spreadsheets over holistic ideals, the type of people who would rather remark on the consistency of the asphalt than the unbridled potential of the open road. When Jack Nicholson says, “They’ll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em,” in Easy Rider, he was prophesying these hordes of budding bureaucrats that were the organic product of the Woodstock resistance.  

So it seems fitting that director Jeff Nichols sets the most important scene of The Bikeriders, his new film about the origins of the Chicago Vandals motorcycle gang, in front of a theater showing the movie that made Nicholson and Dennis Hopper household names. A lifelong biker (Norman Reedus) works as a hype man decked out like Peter Fonda in the film–an authentic cross-country easy rider slowly succumbing to the erosion of his culture just as it becomes a pillar of Hollywood product. It’s a thematic moment similar to one in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga—the first road movie of this summer movie season—that finds the titular heroine (Anya Taylor-Joy) facing off with the dictator Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) as he says, “Where are you going, so full of hope? There is no hope!”

Of course, the film proves Dementus wrong. There’s always hope in movement—in the freedom of going place to place. As road movies have long told us, the death of the human spirit comes with the stillness. In our own less-glamorous lives, it’s the wait for the surge-priced Uber or the WeGo bus that never arrives, the rigid transit dogma that offers a future more akin to Mad Max than its adherents would ever acknowledge.

Though Furiosa is a prequel to one of the most revered Hollywood blockbusters of all time and The Bikeriders is a handsome regionalist drama by one of the South’s best filmmakers, they work quite well as spiritual companion pieces. 

By this point, George Miller’s Mad Max franchise has proven itself pop culture’s go-to dystopia, a world of cannibals, scoundrels, and primal men stomping on the last vestiges of civilization. But it’s also a cinematic property about heroes hanging onto hope through the freedom of the open road–one in which heroism is measured by its characters’ ability to drive as they fend off whatever treachery gets in the way. In Miller’s films, the only surviving elements of civilization are tricked-out gas-powered vehicles and a bureaucracy that understands the most vital step in achieving dominion is limiting their movement. 

Such is why, despite five movies chocked full of gunfights, the scenes that have wedged themselves into our permanent cinematic imagination are the beautifully choreographed car chases in which the saviors that shock the system test their limits by gunning for liberation through the Wasteland. The victims of Mad Max’s most hideous reprobates don’t really die at the hands of a deformed villain, but from a sinister knack for central planning that dupes young upstarts into hurdling their own bodies against the enemy’s gates. 

Tellingly, the young upstarts of The Bikeriders have more in common with Mad Max’s albino-cosplay warboys than Easy Rider’s Captain America and Billy. For Nichols, the motorcycle culture typified by the Vandals embodies the American Dream. It’s the catalyst for a masculine bond of guys who work with their hands and adopt the “take no shit” attitude of the Hamiltons and Lafeyettes.

And that American Dream is a gorgeous thing to behold as the headlights of the bikes bob in unison across the highway on the otherwise pitch-black outskirts of Chicago. It’s easy for us to see why Kathy (Jodie Comer) falls in love with Benny (Austin Butler). It’s even easier to see how Benny is torn between the comforts of domesticity and the brotherhood of his fellow bikers led by Johnny (former Mad Max Tom Hardy). 

Though both men devote their lives to the Vandals, it’s a love free from the temptations of leadership. For Benny and Johnny, the club is about freedom, not power. Yet, that’s also the film’s ultimate tragedy. The Vandals manifest true postwar autonomy, unafraid to hunger for more than modern appliances paid for in installments. It’s the rotten fruits of Vietnam, a conflict planned by the political class in the name of preserving freedom, that brings destruction down on the group in a maelstrom of drug addicts desensitized to violence after they return broken to a country where many wished they never came home.

Shortly before Furiosa hit theaters and The Bikeriders ramped up its publicity campaign, Mayor O’Connell revealed his Choose How You Move Plan focused on sidewalks, signals, service, and safety. It’s a far cry from Let’s Move’s self-righteous display of authority and has left most of transit’s fervent acolytes lukewarm. But it’s also a proposal that, despite subtle gestures toward utopia, understands the realities of the city it’s supposed to transform. Our “Movies Mayor” may not be Mad Max or Johnny from the Vandals. But he’s also not Robert McNamara or Fury Road’s Immortan Joe—the logical endgame of a transit drama fundamentally at odds with the yearning for a fleeting freedom that continues to power the best Hollywood’s dream factory has to offer.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga and The Bikeriders are now playing in theaters.