Jeff Nichols’ 2024 film “The Bikeriders” finally gets released after being delayed since December last year. Based on photographer and filmmaker Danny Lyon’s photo book of the same name, it follows the Vandals Motorcycle Club, based on the real-life biker group Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club, and how that club, which had started as a community for outcasts in mid-60s America, would slowly devolve into a gang, losing their purity in the process.

The Bikeriders (2024) Plot Summary & Movie Synopsis:

The opening sequence of the film, which we learn takes place around 1969, shows Benny Cross (Austin Butler) having a drink at a bar all by his lonesome before two regulars threaten him to remove his colors (signifying his biking jacket or cut, which shows his allegiance to a group). When Benny refuses, the men attack him, pushing him out the backdoor. Benny retaliates by taking out his pocket knife and slashing the faces of one of the attackers before a freeze frame. Then, Kathy Cross’s (Jodie Comer) voice floats over the frame as she starts describing to Danny Lyon (Mike Faist) how she met Benny for the first time and, by extension, the Vandals Motorcycle Group.

Who are the Vandals?

In 1965, Kathy Bauer found herself in a bar frequented and filled with off-kilter members of a biker gang that she later learned was the Vandals Motorcycle Group. Their leader is Johnny (Tom Hardy), a laconic albeit pleasant “bikerider” who assures the scared Kathy that nothing untoward would happen to her from his club members. She also meets the intense Benny Cross, who, after dropping her home, waits for her outside the house shared by Kathy and her boyfriend throughout the night. Kathy’s boyfriend, feeling insulted, breaks up with Kathy and leaves. Almost immediately, as if proving the modern adage “sliding into her DMs” right, Benny knocks on her door and asks her out on a meeting at the club. Back in the present, Kathy wistfully smiles and reveals she will marry Benny five weeks later. 

The whirlwind romance between Kathy and Benny becomes the gateway for Danny, and this film introduces the world of the Bikriders. Johnny, as it turns out, used to be a truck driver with a penchant for racing bikes on the dirt track. The idea to form a motorcycle club for a married transit truck driver with children originated after watching the seminal film “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando as Johnny Stabler. Stabler’s iconic answer—when asked what you are rebelling against—with “Whaddya got?” catapulted the character to a cultural icon, and as “The Bikeriders” suggests, it also inspired Johnny.

Johnny, we see, would be initially reticent about adding new chapters or new branches of the motorcycle club in other states, though he is perfectly open to ensuring the club becomes a haven for all members who might have committed misdemeanors. As postulated by Johnny when he founded the club, his leadership gets challenged when he rejects the idea of opening up new chapters. He chooses to mitigate it by engaging in a rough-and-tumble fisticuff, breaking the finger of the challenger, and then accepting his request to open new chapters in the Midwest. A subtle way to reinforce his leadership, as it turns out.

The movie is also interspersed with Lyon interviewing the rest of the Vandals. For Brucie (Damon Herriman), an electrician and Johnny’s right-hand man, the urge is to be a part of a community. The club, according to Brucie, is made up of such outcasts, which has ironically made him an outcast from society as well. For Cal (Boyd Holbrook), a Vandal represents a passion for motorcycles—for chopping or customizing their scooters according to specifications necessary for an individual. For Cockroach (Emory Cohen), it is about getting in the dirt and tinkering with bikes. And for Zipco (Michael Shannon) it’s attempting to reconcile with the 50s version of “All American” with what the current era of 60s clean-cut college-going kids represented.

A still from The Bikeriders (2024).
A still from “The Bikeriders” (2024).

What is the relationship between Johnny and Benny?

The attack on Benny in 1969 led to Benny’s foot being critically injured after being hit by a shovel when he was down. It makes Johnny lose his composure because previous scenes have established a deep bond of brotherhood between Benny and Johnny. Johnny is admired by Benny’s no-nonsense and nonchalant, cool attitude. For Benny, it’s loyalty and mutual respect, which we witness in the altercation at the “picnic” when Cal and the leader of the Gary biker gang have a tense altercation because of Cal apparently scratching the man’s chopper. Johnny wants to cool down the flaring tempers, but Benny, on witnessing the altercation about to occur, mistakenly punches the leader. Johnny, instead of being mad, just shrugs and begins fighting with the club. Later, the clubs reconcile, and Johnny is impressed by the loyalty Benny has shown.

Thus, Benny’s accident forces Johnny to act rashly, and through that, he leans into the then-populist fears of biker culture. He, along with Brucie, intimidates the owner into giving up the addresses of the men who beat Benny up before setting fire to the bar. Johnny also visits Benny and convinces him to attend another big “picnic,”  assuring him that he won’t need to apply too much pressure to his broken foot. However, this deepening friendship between Benny and Johnny doesn’t sit right with Kathy, who had been rattled by Benny’s accident and now wants him to quit the club, which Benny would refuse.

At the picnic, while sitting around a campfire and listening to the sobering story of Zipco being rejected for serving in the Vietnam War, Johnny takes Benny aside and offers him leadership of the Vandals, stating that the men needed someone who wouldn’t be afraid to stand up to the men and lead the team in their way. We also learn that the number of chapters of the club has increased beyond Johnny’s control, and all these new guys need someone like Benny, who represents young blood, the man who can live beyond the responsibilities and dues that society wants. But Benny tacitly refuses, if not outright.

Who is the Kid?

We also see scenes interspersed with a young delinquent we only know as “The Kid” (Toby Wallace), who is aggressive and comes from a troubled household. He first gets the idea of joining a motorcycle club when he sees the Vandals riding away in a full cordon. He is enamored by the splendor and the idea of a group of young men free from shackles and responsibilities. The next scene shows him joining or creating a motorcycle gang of his own. We also witness his anger issues and acting out at his abusive father by breaking his leg. When his mother throws a plate at him in retaliation, ordering him to stay away, the kid looks back at her stonily, which scares her. 

The kid finally tries to meet Johnny at the bar where they frequent and asks for permission to join. Johnny, already heartbroken by the accidental death of Brucie, is completely reluctant to admit new members. However, he finally decides to give the kid a chance upon learning that they have customized their own bikes but vehemently refuses once the kid jumps up on the chance to join without his friends. The rejection angers the kid, who tries to stab him and slashes Johnny’s hand. In anger, Johnny punches the kid, pushing him to the ground before instructing his friends to get him out of Johnny’s sight.

What leads to the devolution of the club?

In 1973, Lyon interviews Kathy about the Vandals’ current iteration. Kathy reveals how Brucie’s sudden, inexplicable vehicular accident pushed Johnny towards despondency. The club also began to show a violent and aggressive streak with the introduction of Vietnam War veterans as newer members of the club. In one of the picnics, a few Vietnam War-returned veteran members would take the rules of the club too seriously, and upon learning about Cockroach’s plans to leave the club to join the police force motorcycle branch, they beat him black and blue, much to Johnny’s horror.

Johnny’s control also seems to be slipping, as we see Kathy nearly getting raped due to a misunderstanding regarding a dress she had been wearing and Johnny having to push them back. What struck Kathy more, hinting at the strain in their relationship, was Benny having taken Cockroach to the hospital and thus being unable to come to her rescue. This finally leads to a massive argument, with Kathy demanding Benny leave the club. Instead, Benny leaves their house for several days.

Johnny would hatch a plan with Benny and stage a break-in at Cockroach’s house, intentionally injuring him in the leg. The logic as such would be to furnish a legitimate excuse for Cockroach to leave the club and join up with the police force. This act disillusions Benny, who had already started to feel uncomfortable with the violence and aggression that had been increasing within the last couple of years. He explicitly rejects the leadership of the club and leaves the city.

The Bikriders (2024) Movie Ending Explained:

How does Johnny die?

The Kid’s wish to join the Vandals is finally fulfilled due to his having joined via the Milwaukee Charter. Once joined, he decides to challenge the leadership of the Vandals by directly confronting Johnny at the bar. Deciding to respond to this once and for all, he accepts the challenge of meeting up at the parking lot for a knife fight. We see him wishing a nonchalant goodbye to his wife, promising to bring in groceries on his way back. However, he had not accounted for the Kid’s propensity to not care about the rules and literally brought a knife to a gunfight. As a result, the Kid shoots Johnny, much to the shock of the dying Johnny, as well as Wahoo and Corky, who had accompanied Johnny. They were too shocked to even react and protest.

As the movie begins to wind down, Kathy reveals that The Kid would take over the biker group and transform it into a proper gang involved in organized crime and drug trafficking. She reveals that the majority of the old members had either left the club or died, with only one or two still choosing to remain. According to her, the golden age of the motorcycle club would die out with Johnny’s death.

The death of Johnny also convinces Benny to return home, where Kathy finds him sitting on the porch and comforts him as he breaks down crying—a moment of stark vulnerability that Kathy has previously remarked is a rare occurrence for Benny. The last time he would cry was when he was scared of being unable to ride anymore. This is why his choosing to move away to Florida with Kathy, work as a mechanic, and not ride anymore would become a monumental decision for him. But even as he is happy, we still find Benny looking wistfully in the direction of the sounds of the chopper engines.

Another still from The Bikeriders (2024).
Another still from “The Bikeriders” (2024).

 The Bikeriders (2024) Movie Themes Analyzed:

The Biker Subculture and its prejudices

Outlaw motorcycle clubs would be characterized as “outlaws” because they wouldn’t be sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA). According to a comment made by a former president of the AMA in 1960, William Berry remarked that 99% of motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens, with the rest 1% characterized as outlaws. This remark had been allegedly made by Berry in response to the Hollister Riot, which is basically a sensationalized account of a few motorcyclists attending an AMA-sanctioned gypsy rally and causing a commotion. These motorcycle clubs, with their hierarchies and rules, would characterize that remark as a badge of honor. 

As “The Bikeriders” shows, along with movies of the 1960s dealing with biker subcultures like “Hell’s Angels,” “Easy Rider,” or, more importantly, the quintessential 50s biker movie “The Wild One,” the biker subculture represented a sense of freedom as well as community for outcasts. This would be reinforced by Brucie’s comment about finding a place to belong, as well as Zipco’s monologue about not being accepted for service in the Vietnam War due to being unfit for service. The bikerider culture becomes the only organization to which they could belong, sharing a common love for their steed and freedom.

But the movie also shows the prejudice that outlaw motorcycle groups would face. Perhaps it’s regarding the nomenclature, but as Brucie remarks, “Everybody needs somebody to pick on.” With the hippie culture slowly gaining more and more traction in that decade, these outlaw motorcycle gangs would become an easy target for prejudiced views of society.

The interesting nugget is Kathy’s reaction to seeing the bikes parked on her porch. While she loves Benny and apparently appreciates the camaraderie at the club, along with sharing a cordial relationship with the partners of all the other members of the club, there is a definite streak of mild prejudice running through her. But it fully blooms when the violence in the club starts reaching a fever pitch, and she begins to convince Benny to leave the club.

The unfortunate reality, as witnessed in the film, is how the Vietnam War, as well as the lack of sustainable living conditions, would adversely affect the little slice of dude heaven that the biker club represented. The presence of the Kid as the newer, aggressive addition, along with the war veterans joining, further exacerbates the condition, making the club not only a house for outcasts but also a vent for acting out against society and committing organized crime.

The push and pull between family and the club

Austin Butler’s Benny represents the ideal biker club member, according to Johnny, free of the rules and regulations that society tends to put shackles on. This idealized perspective of Benny brought forth a slight streak of envy as well as love for Benny from Johnny’s point of view, to the extent that he would view Benny as a successor.

Like Johnny, Benny views the club as a family. However, the central dilemma for that character is choosing between the two families he finds himself in. While the balancing act between the club and the family he is building with Kathy would have been easy to maintain in the beginning, as time passes and the violence slowly begins to creep in and take over, the strain in the relationship between both aspects of the family begins to fray.

For Benny, taking on the leadership role would be stifling, as he would find himself in a box, but leaving too would be tantamount to death because Johnny and the club represented a freedom and brotherhood to him that is hard to replicate. However, as time passes, he slowly becomes disillusioned with the club’s policies and its propensity towards violence.

The one pivotal scene that encapsulates the full emotional core of the narrative is the argument between Johnny and Kathy over Benny, both loving that man in their own way but both finding at opposite ends to sort of own his soul. Unfortunately, it would be circumstances that would ultimately force him to make a choice, and the death of Johnny would be the catalyst that would ultimately signal Benny to walk away from the culture.

Read More: Where to Watch ‘The Bikeriders’?

The Bikeriders (2024) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia
Cast of The Bikeriders (2024) Movie: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Norman Reedus
The Bikeriders (2024) Movie Release Date: 21st June 2024 | Genre: Crime/Drama | Runtime: 1h 56m
Where to watch The Bikeriders

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