“A fascinating and nuanced tale, surprisingly lighthearted at times and wrenchingly probing at others.”
by Ken Bakely
When watching Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice, there comes a point where you feel like you have permission to laugh, or at least openly acknowledge there’s something funny to the way it’s going about its business. Buried within the film’s dark setup and myriad of complications from its snaky plotting and rattled characters comes a delicate equilibrium based in a kind of absurdity. It certainly doesn’t tip its hat in its direction right away, though: the plot concerns Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), a cold and distant soldier stationed abroad. He is sent home after his wife, Emma (Anne Birgitte Lird), is killed in a train derailment. His emotional detachment leaves him unable to grieve, and even less able to comfort his adolescent daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadberg). A steely internal stalemate is broken, however, when Otto (Nikolaj Lie Klaas), a dorky statistician who survived the crash, comes to Markus with his colleague, Lennart (Lars Brygmann), and a shocking claim: among the dead was someone scheduled to testify in court against a dangerous gang, the Riders of Justice. He calculates that the likelihood of this specific person dying in an incident such as this is under 1 in 230 million, and concludes that it was not an accident, as the authorities have ruled, but a planned attack. Markus comes to agree, and he, Otto, Lennart, and irritable computer specialist Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) use their varied skills to exact violent revenge on the perpetrators.
But it’s not that straightforward. The point when you come to realize there’s something slyly off-kilter about this is early on, when Otto explains his theory to incredulous detectives. Most stories would portray him as a visionary, who sees through the noise and finds the truth. But his supporting evidence is shaky at best and nonsensical at worst. The investigators think he’s full of it, and so does the movie. Riders of Justice ultimately reveals itself as a smart exploration of not merely the dangerous journey these people are on, but the personal flaws and underlying motivations that lead them to it. Though the film gives a fair amount of attention to developing all of its central characters, Markus and Otto are the leads here, with their close connections to the train disaster providing the biggest insight into how Jensen shapes the story. He shows how they work through these events in their own ways, but with the shared effect of suppressing the emotional realizations that would come from grappling with the chaotic reality they’re living in. If Markus believes he can identify somebody responsible for his wife’s death, and Otto can use his mathematical know-how to reduce his experiences to a digestible set of numbers, then neither have to face the possibility that maybe this really was just a tragic accident. Mikkelsen’s Markus experiences this arc perhaps with the most substantial depth, as his sharp, tormented performance leads a fine cast through the plot’s thick layers.
And yet – and I keep coming back to this – Riders of Justice does pull at the edges of all of this to find deft humor. Sometimes it is overt, such as a subplot in which Markus tries – with increasingly ludicrous credibility – to hide his mission from Mathilde, having Lennart pose as a therapist who has taken her on as a client, to explain his constant presence at their home. Other times, it quietly comes in the deliberate juxtaposition of the complexity of the men’s journey against their lack of underlying reasoning – a clear irony sought from how Jensen emphasizes Markus and company’s belief that they are, of course, pulling this off with calculated rationality. The script wants us to question the extreme absolutes of their assumptions, while also seeking to show the understandable pain and confusion that fuels them. Perhaps the third act struggles somewhat in sustaining all of these accumulated ideas while trying to wrap up the remaining loose ends, but there’s still a sturdy, consistent core that governs the whole movie. Jensen has crafted a fascinating and nuanced tale, surprisingly lighthearted at times and wrenchingly probing at others, turning the familiar devices of revenge stories on their head with commendable results.