You will notice that I referred to the Vandals as a motorcycle club and not a motorcycle gang, which is a pretty crucial distinction and is at the heart of how we see that cultural shift. When Johnny decided to start the Vandals, he wasn’t looking to get into a life of crime. He saw Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” and wanted to emulate the cool he watched on screen, but what he was really looking for was an escape from his fairly mundane life as a truck driver with a wife and kids. He can have his home life and his club life. Finding an excuse to pal around with guys like Damon Herriman’s Brucie, Emory Cohen’s Cockroach, and Michael Shannon’s Zipco was what made the club so appealing, but everyone has to essentially cosplay as a macho tough guy to disguise their true affections for each other, as that’s how you have to be a man in this world.
Those affections are even more complicated between Johnny and Benny. Benny sees Johnny as something of a father figure, which someone as adrift as he is desperately desires, but though never made explicit, it’s pretty clear that Johnny harbors a secret love for Benny, though he has no way of expressing it. There’s always a reason to take Benny aside for a private conversation, some of which are so quiet and have their faces so close together that you expect a kiss at any moment. Adam Stone’s naturalistic but warm 35mm photography beautifully captures that desire (as does how he shoots Austin Butler, who further cements himself as a true movie star). When Johnny is in a particularly precarious place towards the end of the film, he visits Benny and Kathy’s house, but when Benny isn’t there, he can’t confess what he really needs. This club exists for men to be close to each other. They call it loyalty, but it’s really love.
When you put on the airs of toughness and hard living, how long does it take for you to buy into your own created narrative? “The Bikeriders” may start out as a story about a motorcycle club, but the film follows how that club morphs into a gang. Just as the 1960s become more violent, chaotic, drug-fueled, and unknowable, so do the Vandals. Rather than be a way to circumnavigate societal expectations, it becomes an outlet for rage, and some members understand that they’ve lost the plot while some don’t. The original conception of a bike club becomes something that men lose, and the loss of that camaraderie ripples through time to today.