Austin Butler stars as Benny in director Jeff Nichols' THE BIKERIDERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The Bikeriders: Jeff Nichols’ Portrait of a Counterculture to Counterculture in the American Midwest On and Off the Road

In the early 1960s a young photography student named Danny Lyon found himself with a motorcycle club in Chicago. Originally planning to just document their activities he ended up, for a period, a fully-fledged member of the group. From his time with them and interviews he recorded came his documentary photography book ‘The Bikeriders’ published in 1967. Jeff Nichols uses some of Lyon’s interviews verbatim making his film remarkably authentic. The person who was the most prolific storyteller in Lyon’s work was a woman called Kathy – not a rider herself but the wife of one. Nichols presents his Kathy in the shape of Jodie Comer. Kathy’s perspective instead of Danny’s (Mike Faist) keeps the film grounded avoiding starry-eyed reverence. In a time of radical changes in the American psyche, especially with the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, Nichols hews close to what Kathy sees – a group of working-class outsiders coming together to form a family of sorts whose whose initial impetus was freedom in a country in which they felt marginalised becoming infected by the decay of an immoral and indefensible war, organised crime, and disillusionment and distrust with and of all forms of authority.

By 1963-1965 America had been given enough time to settle into a kind of post WWII rhythm. Youth culture was part of the mainstream from James Dean and Natalie Wood to Annette Funicello and Sandra Dee to Elvis and Motown. America was shaking off some of the immediate conservatism of rebuilding ‘society’ after people returned from the Allied victory and the Korean War. However, for some there was still a sense of purposelessness for veterans who didn’t quite reintegrate into peace time. They missed the action, the risk, the male camaraderie, and the sense of order. Motorcycle culture, although not new, was gaining a following from those who resonated with Marlon Brando’s antiheroic Johnny Strabler in The Wild One such as Tom Hardy’s leader of the pack Johnny, to people who had read Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ and similar counter-culture narratives. It was also being filtered through journalism and articles by writers such as Hunter S. Thompson or Roger Corman’s and other ‘cyclesploitation’ (sic) movies. In The Bikeriders Nichols doesn’t give the audience much of a sense that members of the Chicago Vandals (modelled on the still active Outlaws MC) were paying attention to Kerouac or Ginsberg; they were more concerned with taking something meaningful to them – male bonding and turning it into a community with a band-of-brothers code of conduct promoting individual freedom. Between the intersection of older men without a sense of purpose and younger men without a sense of place grew the ‘outlaw’ biker or the 1 percent of motorcyclists considered a criminal element by the American Motorcycle Association.

The opening of the film is an incident which doesn’t occur until near the middle of the piece in 1969. A young man, Benny (Austin Butler) sits in a bar drinking. He’s told by two of the patrons he can’t wear those colours (his motorcycle insignia and patches) there. Benny slowly moves his head and tells them they’ll have to kill him to get him out of his jacket and that’s something they almost do as an uneven fight breaks out and Benny goes down. The narration by Kathy says, “I’ve had nothin’ but trouble since I married Benny. I’ve seen more jails, been to more courts and met more lawyers.”

Kathy is the lynchpin of the film – although not all seeing she’s perhaps the person who sees things the clearest. From her meeting with the impossibly handsome Benny (the way Kathy gazes at him is with raw and unfettered attraction) who the girls around the club tell her to avoid because he’s always getting into accidents, to Benny stubbornly refusing to go home after dropping her off at her house, whatever life Benny lives is something Kathy will be a part of. Benny is mysterious and sometimes near monosyllabic, but he represents a spirit of freedom that intoxicates Kathy and many of the younger men in the club. They’re not necessarily terrible guys, they have rules of a sort, but they aren’t upstanding citizens either. Some of them like Corky (Karl Glusman) and Wahoo (Beau Knapp) are what one would describe as ‘mostly harmless’ until there is active affray. Mostly harmless of course in terms of wild party boys with a penchant for switchblades and general debauchery.

For other members such as Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Brucie (Damon Herriman), and club leader Johnny, Vandals MC is a place where they can feel alive and necessary. Johnny is a trucker and father of two daughters, but you barely see his home life except in a flashback where he is captivated by Brando. Cal was a mechanical engineer in the army who didn’t find a place in peacetime. Brucie is the best friend and big brother to everyone. Zipco (Michael Shannon) who is apparently Latvian, which is debatable, and is unhinged which is not debatable, who without the club might have ended up a serial killer saboteur (he failed his army psych test). And then there is Emory Cohen’s Cockroach – a man hardly firing on all cylinders but who loves his club, motorcycles, and eating bugs. Cockroach is the kind of guy who needs the Vandals as they are the only people who will take him as he is.

When Kathy tells Danny of how she sees her life it is with a more than a tinge of irony. “Those guys were sure good at making up rules, but not good at following the law.” There was a level of pride Benny felt at running as many streetlights as possible and speeding through working class neighbourhoods. The same pride which made Johnny watch over his club with a paternal eye. Brawling, drinking, and owning the roads made them feel alive. No one showed outright disrespect to anyone the club felt had not earned it. Yet, within the early years at least there was a sense of shared purpose and friendly (enough) interaction with other clubs and sometimes even the law. But America began to change rapidly around them and with that change came a darkness that Johnny can’t fend off with a one-on-one ‘fists or knives’ fight or his cult of personality.

If Corky, Wahoo, and Benny represent the younger side of the club who desire freedom and the rules of the road, then the desperately antisocial ‘The Kid’ (Toby Wallace) is a part of yet another generation who want to dominate a society which has dominated them. The first time The Kid sees Vandals MC, he imagines himself lifted from a life of extreme poverty and brutality. All he knows of WWII is that his father came home embittered and extremely violent ready to raise his fist to anyone in his crumbling apartment. He’s not going to fight for a country he hates in Vietnam for people he doesn’t care about, he’s not interested in politics, or destroying communism. He mistakes Johnny and the old guard of the riders as people who share his dog devour dog nihilism.

For Johnny, Brucie, Cal, and crazy West Coast blow-in Funny Sonny (a hilarious Norman Reedus) there is still a kind of guiding principle to their disobedience. Sure, they might burn down a bar because one of the club’s members was assaulted there, but they ensure no-one dies. They have an ‘interesting’ relationship to property – theft is fine especially if it’s from people who can afford it. Booze and weed are everyday drugs. Running small rackets is part of the American way. A full criminal enterprise with no code is not what they envisioned.

It is hard to know what Benny envisioned. Even with Kathy and Johnny being focussed on him, he is elusive. He has a hairpin trigger temper and a seemingly endless tolerance to pain. He’s barely containing a deep-seated anger which he covers with near emotionlessness. He’s loyal to both Kathy and Johnny but abandons both when they need him most. Kathy after a near rape and Johnny when he tries once again to pass the club into his hands. “I don’t ask no-one for nothing, and I don’t want nothing from no-one.” All he seems to desire is being in the pack but also apart from it – the pack gives him the road. If Kathy is the film’s storyteller, in many ways Benny is the film’s story. He refuses definition and makes no grand statements. Benny just turned up one day from somewhere else and slotted in. Even his bicep tattoo says nothing, only his name. He doesn’t want to opt in for anything; not the 9-5 lifestyle and not to being any kind of example – his default position is opting out of what America offers.

Nichols is essentially making two films. One which through the lens of Adam Stone and the fantastic music – including of course The Shangri-Las looks at the potential of found family and acceptance in the early years of the Vandals MC and one that plays out their slow and inevitable decline as hard drugs, racism, and organised crime infect America en masse as it enters the 1970s and the hard division between what was seen as counter cultural (hippies, Zipco’s ‘pinko’ college students, peace activism, political activism, experimentation with hallucinogens) and simply criminal – drug and human trafficking, arson, money laundering, and murder.

Although not shown in the film, in December 1969 the Altamont Speedway concert happened where the Hell’s Angels acting as security for The Rolling Stones and other bands ended in a violent affray with a crowd who rejected the tenets of Woodstock just months earlier. What we do see instead is members of different chapters of the Vandals MC ferociously beating Cockroach because he cluelessly talks about how he’d like to be a motorcycle cop and be paid to sit on a bike. Or a club member shooting up in a doorway. Or the notion that certain women were there only to be used sexually with or without their consent (although sexual assault was extremely common among outlaw clubs). Johnny can no longer say of his club to Kathy, “They don’t mean no harm,” and he can’t just let Cockroach leave the club without ensuring he isn’t murdered by new members.

The Bikeriders contains multiple set pieces of violent interactions including one of Benny almost beating a man to death in what was ostensibly a relatively good natured stoush. It also begins with Benny’s assault. Men go down and are kicked until their ribs are broken. There are deaths. Yet, Nichols asks you to look in between those parts for where the full story is. The story is in the wider vistas of the Midwest – sometimes beautiful, other times broken. It’s in the elation Benny feels when he’s riding with the club or on his own. It’s also in the background where Nichols places a lot of faces who would seem unlikely such as Black riders and women with their own bikes. It’s in Brucie’s relationship with Gail (Phuong Kubacki) and Benny asking Kathy out on a date even though he has been sat opposite her house for days not coming in until she opens the door to him. It is in Funny Sonny the half-baked biker from another club (more than likely Hell’s Angels) deciding he isn’t going to kill as Cal as ordered because he likes the guys at the rally. It’s in Zipco’s rants about ‘pinkos’ which for him didn’t mean communists or socialists but simply labour activists, people who like sport, and people who read too many books – Zipco would be the All-American gun toting hero if he knew how to interact with anyone as a sober or partially sane person. The story is with Cal who is a technical genius with anything mechanical but who fell through the cracks in the system and was illiterate until he joined the army. It’s in Kathy being the one working and keeping house for a bunch of permanent dropouts.

Primarily the story is in Johnny’s desperation to hold on to a sense of order and realising what he admired in Benny he despises in The Kid, because effectively he understands that brotherhood in his version of the Vandals MC died when freedom began to mean the freedom to fight against him as a figurehead of a community.

The story is also how insular the bikeriders are – history is happening – Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton, and President Kennedy all assassinated. There is a moon landing. The first stirrings of second wave feminism and reproductive freedom. Black militantism for liberation. COINTELPRO. The Cold War. The proliferation of narcotics through Vietnam itself. The nightmares of men who killed in jungles, conscripted to do so, who came home not as heroes but as pariahs. It is the world moving at an accelerated pace, but the acceleration only matters when it closes off avenues for the bikeriders and rips apart their brittle relationship with shared standards in their alternative community.

The movie doesn’t have the club riding on Route 66 to California or in metropolitan Chicago. They don’t turn up on a university campus or attend a protest. They are in blank urban spaces distinguished by little or on the highways of the Midwest going to somewhere palpably ordinary. Bars, diners, laundromats that are the centre of nothing except the club’s experience with them. It’s America’s heartland with the signs of agriculture and industry and its comparative anonymity makes the case for why the biker culture thrived there among the working-class men who couldn’t fit in, so they needed something to stand out. It is also the part of America where if rot has set in, it is deep in the fabric of the country.

The elegiac part of the film plays out as the darkness descends and riding motorcycles is barely what groups the men together. In a flashback Kathy relates after she and Benny have moved to Florida some years later, Funny Sonny is revving his Harley trying to entice crowds to see the equally downbeat but American classic Easy Rider. Others are dead and lost, and one or two just got everyday jobs.

Danny Lyon’s book was a pictorial history with an addendum provided by letters from original members of the Outlaws MC (in reality Lyon became increasingly concerned with the overwhelming criminality in the club and the non-ironic embrace of Nazi symbolism and severed in person connection with them in 1968) Nichols’ script documents the inevitable decline of the club’s American dream. Anomie fuelled Johnny’s version of the Vandals – a condition which continued to snowball as America left swathes of the population without material support. For each ‘Whaddya got?’ rebel there was a ‘Whatever you got I’m gonna take it however I can’ rebel like The Kid for whom society is anathema to survival.

Jeff Nichols brings a dream cast together. Jodie Comer is a force to be reckoned with as Kathy who is unafraid to go toe-to-toe with Johnny to keep Benny alive and with her – she also must fight Benny’s own self-destructive urges. Tom Hardy is powerful as the conflicted self-made patriarch of the outsiders. As much as Johnny wants to believe he can be Brando (even donning the accent and mannerisms) he is playing a kind of dress-up which is why Brucie’s measured loyalty bolsters him until his sadly quotidian death. It’s also why he’s fixated on Benny, because whatever and whoever Benny is, he’s the real thing – a natural James Dean as directed by Nicholas Ray, the authentic version of Brando’s Johnny Strabler who simply has to be in a room and eyes turn toward him. Which is why the deeply charismatic Austin Butler is excellent as Benny Cross. An enigma built out of two photographs who was never interviewed by Danny Lyon. Nichols’ decision to never fully explain Benny despite his wife being the primary narrator of the film is superb. His fury could come from any number of circumstances, his carelessness too. He’s not an ideal husband by any measure but he loves Kathy and as much as he knows how, respects her. Benny puts himself on the line; he is also selfish. He is potentially deadly; he is also protective. Lone wolf and member of the flock.

The primary trio of protagonists are given depth through their interactions with each other and their interactions with the supporting characters. Cockroach’s simplicity is also his strength. Emory Cohen makes a seemingly ridiculous character a sympathetic of bellwether when he decides to leave. Both Michael Shannon and Norman Reedus are playing large and loud which amplifies Boyd Holbrook and Austin Butler’s more restrained characters. Toby Wallace as The Kid is terrifying, before he even attempts to be a part of Johnny’s Vandals, he has already taken down one father figure. Finally, one of Australia’s greatest character actors Damon Herriman is the human face of the ‘everyman’ outsider – the man who believes in what Benny is offering.

Jeff Nichols Bikeriders is an understated masterpiece of lost Americana. The purpose of the work is to linger as it simultaneously venerates and castigates. There is no hero in the film because no-one is doing anything heroic. The Vandals are fighting the system because the system has no place for them, but they aren’t fighting for anyone except themselves. There is no grand cause beyond the open road and the next rally. They are anti-establishment but can’t effectively create an alternative beyond a nebulous idea of honour which still relies on a hierarchy. They are, in short, a gang. Despite of, or even because of, the fact that they are outlaws with limited purpose the (not quite) rise and inevitable fall of the Vandals MC makes for compelling viewing. While Nichols refuses to swing the hammer too far in either direction of aggrandizement or condemnation the audience takes in the period and the place with the director’s imagined document lacking sensationalism. For a brief period, the bikeriders rode as free as they could be. Nichols puts the audience in the sidecar, by the open fire, and in a crowded bar and it is intoxicating.

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy

Writer: Jeff Nichols, (Based on The Bikeriders by Danny Lyon)

Producers: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Arnon Milchan

Cinematography: Adam Stone

Music: David Wingo

Editor: Julie Monroe

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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