Riders of Justice

I think RIDERS OF JUSTICE, a Danish film technically released in November 2020, is my favorite movie I’ve seen this year. It plays off of some genre traditions and themes that interest me, but it feels unlike anything I’ve seen before, and it was exciting to discover that as I watched it. So this is one of the reviews where I have to start by suggesting you take my word for it that it’s a truly special movie, stop reading, go watch it, and then come back. But I know most people won’t do that, so I’ll start by explaining what the movie is and warn you before I get into heavy spoiler stuff to analyze the meaning with those who have seen it.

From the description on the box this sounds like a straight up revenge movie, which you know I would be down for. Markus (a heavily bearded Mads Mikkelsen, VALHALLA RISING) is a soldier pulled off duty in Afghanistan to take care of his teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) after his wife (Anne Birgitte Lind) dies in a train crash. Then a survivor of the crash tells him it might not have been an accident, so they put together a team of computer experts and try to track down who’s responsible.

That is indeed the basic plot, and Markus does end up using his particular set of skills (mostly shooting) on a whole bunch of people. But I wouldn’t really say that’s what this is about. It’s not even about “Revenge will only make things worse,” even though it does illustrate that and deconstruct some of the relevant tropes pretty thoroughly. But I swear to you it’s something much more thoughtful, complex and soulful than just a revenge or anti-revenge movie, as much as I tend to enjoy those sorts of things.

This poster is pretty misleading

Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, THE IDIOTS) is a statistics expert who, with his two dorky friends, Lennart (Lars Brygmann, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro, WAR HORSE), has been working on an algorithm that has not impressed their employer and got the team fired. So he’s headed home on an earlier train than usual, a crowded train, when he offers his seat to Markus’s wife Emma. Seconds later the crash happens, the people sitting by that window are killed instantly, and he survives, filled with tremendous guilt. When he finds out one of the people killed in the crash was 13 days away from testifying in a trial against the leader of a biker gang he becomes convinced it was an assassination, and remembers every unusual thing he observed before it happened, convinced he saw the saboteur. The police are not swayed.

So he shows up at Markus’s home with a stack of print outs and stolen data to convince him of his thesis, and before long they’re set up in the barn and at Emmenthaler’s house doing amateur facial recognition scans on hacked security cam footage, trying to ID a guy Otto saw throwing away a whole meal and getting off the train moments before the incident.

But believe it or not, this movie that begins in such tragedy and deals very matter-of-factly with grief and violence is also very funny and quirky. Nervous, wincing Otto and stoic, grimacing Markus are already a huge enough contrast to provide humorous friction, but seeing Mikkelsen glower at the eccentricities of Lennart and Emmenthaler is priceless. There’s alot of dialogue made really funny just through each character’s preoccupations: Lennart is impressed by the size of the barn, and is constantly mentioning it or wanting to move conversations there; Emmanthaler is pissed off that he has to use Lennart’s cheap monitor, and keeps gratuitously bringing up its low resolution; he’s also hung up on the idea that Markus should teach them how to shoot and that they should help kill people, so he’ll bring that up, always trying to play it like he’s just trying to be helpful, not pushing his own agenda of bloodthirst. I also loved Markus’s disbelief at how fast Emmanthaler could assemble a rifle, not through any experience but just an understanding of engineering.

Okay, never mind, this poster is pretty misleading

The investigation and revenge plot dig these guys into deeper and deeper trouble, but it usually feels like Markus has it under control. He has a harder time with the escalating lies they’re telling Mathilde to explain why a guy she recognizes from the train and two – then three – other strangers are spending all day every day at the house or in the barn with her dad. As much or more than it’s about confronting dangerous biker dudes it’s about this collection of broken people forming an ersatz family in the process.

Each of these characters has their own issues that they’re dealing with, and we learn about their pasts, and a big part of the joy of the movie is how badass Markus spending time with these nerds and grimacing at the things they un-self-consciously say to him – giving him completely unwanted advice about how to raise his daughter, for example – slowly chips away at his defenses and starts to change him.

A thing here that’s pretty alien to me as an American is how the state offers psychiatrists to Markus and Mathilde to help them deal with their loss. A more familiar one is that Markus turns them down. He’s very polite to them, but it’s clearly a macho thing. He sees no use for them and doesn’t want Mathilde to use them either, acting like she’s being completely ridiculous when she tries to change his mind. I don’t have a background like Markus, but I grew up with that problem of thinking men are supposed to keep all their emotions buried inside, and I still sometimes struggle with it, although I’ve been working on it in recent years. I loved seeing a great screen presence like Mikkelsen dealing with that. It does a great job of making him cool while showing that his machismo is not so much cool as just uptightness. And it hurts not only his daughter, but himself.

This is definitely confronting what we call toxic masculinity, but doing that with great compassion for everyone involved. Markus doesn’t have the capacity to deal with certain things in a healthy way. If he doesn’t shut down, he blows up. Otto and Mathilde’s boyfriend Sirius (Albert Rudbeck Lindhart), who’s un-self-consciously into cooking and talking about emotional problems and other things that are outside of Markus’s idea of masculinity, are both assaulted by Markus. Both forgive him, though, and that’s so outside his experience that it bends him toward their points-of-view.

I think the most important theme is the idea of causality. In his work Otto studies complex patterns of cause and effect. He argues that things that seem like coincidences can be explained as part of a series of events if enough data points are filled in. Of course after surviving this tragedy he can’t help but obsess over the what-ifs. He knows if he’d stayed in his seat rather than offering it to Emma, that he would’ve died instead of her, so Markus would still have his wife and Mathilde would still have her mom. And Otto doesn’t feel he deserved to be the one who lived – not just because of standard survivor’s guilt, but also for reasons we’ll learn later (getting more spoilery here), past events that bring up other obvious what-ifs, where things would’ve been better if he’d made better choices. Paradoxically, it seems to have been those tragic mistakes that led him on the path to becoming the type of guy who would offer his seat to a stranger on the train. Kindness that ends up being fatal.

Okay but I think this one goes to far in the wackiness direction

Mathilde’s thinking is similar. On her wall she has sort of a chart made of Post-It notes, showing the series of random occurrences that led to her and her mom being on that train. Her bike got stolen, so her mom was giving her a ride. But the car broke down, so they decided to take the train. It’s an interesting theme for a revenge movie. According to Markus’s plan, if he kills the people whose sabotage caused Emma’s death, that’s some sort of justice. So why shouldn’t Mathilde go after the person who stole her bike, leading to her getting in the car with her mother, leading to her mother getting on the train? She’s wise enough not to do that, but we know from a framing story that the theft itself was triggered by a little girl asking a shopkeeper if he has a certain bike in blue. The shopkeeper makes a call and his guys spot Mathilde’s bike and take it. So what are you gonna do, get revenge on the little girl?

One of the beautiful things about the movie (BEAUTIFUL THINGS ABOUT THE MOVIE SPOILERS) is how many of their terrible mistakes also lead to good things. A huge coincidence leads to them killing the wrong guy, but also freeing a young sex trafficking victim (Gustav Lindh, THE NORTHMAN). At first taking him to the house to prevent him from telling anyone what he witnessed, he soon acts as an au pair, becoming an important contributor to this newly formed family and living the lifestyle he was seeking when he came to this country in the first place. Likewise, these people all meet because of a tragedy, and then an incorrect assumption when trying to deal with the tragedy. Otto randomly took away Mathilde’s mom by offering his seat to her, but he also gave her back her father by teaching him to finally open up about his feelings and seek help.

FULL-ON ENDING SPOILERS: Things get bloody and it really seems like it’s gonna end on a bummer, or on ambiguity, and it might’ve gotten away with it. But I was so glad to see the happy ending where they’re not only alive, but celebrating Christmas together. And maybe I say this sort of thing too much but I gotta tell you, when I saw the gift that Markus got for Emmanthaler – not only an act of kindness to bring him real happiness, but evidence that he’s accepting the value of exploring and dealing with one’s psychological hang-ups – that shit made me cry. It’s a movie about a terrible tragedy, but it gave me a happy cry. This is a great fucking movie.

It’s written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, who has done some other movies with Mikkelsen and other members of this cast, including the well-regarded MEN & CHICKEN (2015). And I guess he’s one of the four writers credited on THE DARK TOWER? That’s weird. Anyway I feel like I should watch those other ones because this guy is obviously a genius, but also I’m afraid to because I can’t imagine they could live up to this one! If you’ve seen them let me know what you think.

Okay, these ones are good. I like these ones.
This entry was posted on Monday, September 20th, 2021 at 6:53 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Crime, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “Riders of Justice”

  1. Mads gives about a two minute speech to his daughter about the nature of death, and “what it all really means” that I wound up recording on my phone it was so ball-bustingly great.

  2. In most films like this, I’m rooting for a big action finish. However, in this film, I almost think it was the weakest thing about it. The shootout was fine; I just think everything surrounding it was so much better. I got choked up at ‘the present’ too. It was perfect, and the emotion was earned.

  3. I really do recommend tracking down Anders Thomas Jensen other directorial efforts. They share the same absurdist dark sense of humour and the theme of unlikely groups of people finding a sense of belonging and family. Which ones you prefer might just come down to which ones you see first.

    Flickering Llghts and The Green Butchers are my favourites, but Adam’s Apples and Men & Chicken are very good as well. Flickering Lights is more of a play on the gangster film and as such might be closest to Riders of Justice in it’s first impression as a genre film that takes a swerve you don’t expect. The other films take more of a family drama premise at first glance but do work in some elements from cult and genre films, but it’s probably more fun to explore those for yourself. Men & Chicken takes the most bizarre route with some quite broad performances that kept me at a distance at first. Like most of his films it reveals more on repeat viewings and becomes funnier as it does.

    One thing I love about these films is that Jensen uses a lot of actors from the same ensemble and lets them play very different parts every time. Mikkelsen’s sweaty unlikable butcher in The Green Butchers is a part he would never get in his English language films and Nikolaj Lie Kaas gets to have fun playing very different twin brothers. All the actors really get to explore different characters.

    So yes, you really should seek out his other films. They are very much worth your time if you liked this one.

  4. Nothing wrong with having a bloody good cry with a movie. It’s certainly happening more and more often as I get older (42 now). I have this ‘100 movie bucket list’ poster where you scratch off each movie as you see it. Last week it was Dirty Dancing, which I had honestly never seen before (loads of snippets over the years but never start to finish). So I sat down, expecting to be bored to tears, but when Jerry Orbach says to Jennifer Grey, ‘you looked great up there’, I started crying happy tears. At a film that the 20 year old me would have told you to ‘fuck right off’ I’d you’d asked me to watch it then. I love getting older and more open. You can never tell us too much about how emotional you get at movies Vern. We love hearing about it.

    Anyway, I’ll watch anything with Mads in it so this has shot straight to the top of my must-see list.

  5. This sounds pretty incredible. Can’t go wrong with Mads in the lead role.

  6. I discovered this movie because of a (tepid) review from the AV Club, and I fucking loved it. I laughed harder than I do at most comedies. I’ve been recommending it to anyone I’ve talked to about movies since I’ve seen it. I almost always seek out the movies that get ‘The Best Thing I’ve Seen Lately’ badge, but this time I’m already there.

  7. Broddie, I don’t know. As much as I love ANOTHER ROUND, isn’t Mikkelsen just a little bit too scary to play a boring school teacher?

  8. I took your advice, stopped reading, and went to watch the film. Loved it! Was great to go in knowing nothing (other than some of the cast & the director) and truly enjoyed the characters, surprises, and sometimes hilarious dialogue. What a cathartic treat this film is. Also, a new film to add to the Christmas movie canon.

  9. Just finished watching this and wow did I love it. Thank you so much for the review, Vern. I hadn’t heard of this but, when I saw your opening paragraph, decided to take your advice and go watch it right away. Really, really happy I did.

  10. This was good. A little, I don’t know, pat, I guess? Or maybe it’s supposed to be transgressive that our heroes not only don’t suffer any consequences at all for their rampage of pointless carnage but actually get rewarded for murdering a whole bunch of people for no reason. Every character is treated like a multifaceted human being except for the bikers, who are just scum incarnate and can seemingly be bumped off without guilt by any random citizen who needs to experience an emotional breakthrough. Which is kinda what action movies are for, in a way: Please just give me someone to kill so I can feel better about myself. The movie at first seems to be interrogating the body count-as-therapy trope of DEATH WISH or JOHN WICK but it sure seems like it’s endorsing it by the end. Feeling sad? Just go out and murder a “bad” person! You’ll get over whatever’s bothering you AND make friends in the process! It doesn’t even matter if it’s the right bad person! No matter who you kill, you’re already a hero so just stop thinking and start shooting!

    Which is just utterly socially responsible and I think I’m down with it. I think. Sometimes it feels like some quirky overwritten indie dramedy shit, though, where everything happens for a reason and the true reward was the friends we made along the way, and I think I’d prefer the ending where all these idiots get what’s coming to them. Because the last thing this world needs is more angry white dudes who think only their bullets can bring sense to a world gone mad, and probably the more honest ending would be one where all this adolescent lashing out just leads to everyone dead on the lawn.

    But probably not. That ending would probably bum me out. At the end of the day I’ll probably take the self-serving lie over the harsh truth. Especially when it’s served up as entertainingly as this.

  11. Saw it a couple of months ago and it’s one of my favourite films of the year so far. It’s impressive how it can handle some really heavy stuff in such a comedic way (how something major is revealed about Lennart for instance) and it also comes across when translated. Also some of the throwaway gags are just so well placed too, like someone saying they’ll hack into the gym records because “I’ve got to renew my crossfit anyway”.

  12. Watched it in a mad-about-Mads double feature with ANOTHER ROUND. Both were great, but I had a better time with this one. I thought it got a bit too goofy at times (ranting about monitor resolution etc.) but it’s pretty amazing in how it juggles tone. From the trailer I didn’t know if this was going to be a gritty revenge movie or a goofy comedy, but it’s kinda both. And neither.

  13. I am glad I took Vern’s advice in the review and watched the movie before reading the review because, wow, what a movie it is.

  14. Hi Vern

    Long time reader, first time poster. Im a dane and can confirm that Anders Thomas Jensen is a genius. He sort of remind me of tarantino egen it comes to dialogue except he writes from a very daniah perspective. Flickering lights and Adams Apples are both fantastic.

    You Will love Them:)

    Check out the short election Night on YouTube Also. Won him an Oscar!

    Keep on the fantastic work you are doing with the review and the site.

    Cheers from Denmark

  15. Loved your review after loving the movie. This is going to be on people’s “discoveries” lists in years to come, and they’ll be bemused that more people weren’t raving about it at the time.

    I don’t know if you’ve since got to Men & Chicken, but if not I heartily recommend it to you because:
    a) It’s a great movie with a similar, but far more out there, comedic beat (although I do vastly prefer this film)
    b) I then get to read your review where you have to describe the film back to me

    Merry Christmas Vern, and thanks for offering words that positively add to my life.

  16. Last year I finally got around to Riders of Justice, which was great. It’s interested in the same things I am, which is 1. finding meaning in a meaningless universe, and 2. Mads Mikkelsen being awesome.

    And now I’ve finally watched Men & Chicken (soon to expire from Hulu, but I think it’s also on Tubi), and loved it. It’s got the same sort of dark and absurd humor and humanism as Riders of Justice, but it also revolves around a weird family with bizarre customs and secrets. So it’s got Texas Chainsaw Massacre II vibes, but much more empathetic.

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