“Delves deeper through its outer layers of traditional thriller and spoofy action to reveal a softer, more soulful centre”
After his wife Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind) is killed in a train crash, soldier Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) returns home from his military base to his grieving daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a statistician who’s just been fired, was also on the train and, feeling guilty for offering Emma his seat and surviving the crash because of it, doesn’t believe it was an accident. Suspecting it to be a planned hit on a former member of titular biker gang the ‘Riders of Justice’, he and oddball friends Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) convince Markus of their theory, setting him off on a violent rampage for revenge.
Riders of Justice may start as a conventional thriller, but once the nerdy, ragtag band of Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler team up with stoic Markus, the tone rapidly swings into more of a black comedy. Their naiveté and inane bickering bounces off Markus’ strong and silent facade, each presenting a different kind of challenge to his very specific kind of masculinity. Though this balance of humour and (literally) hard-hitting scenes works for the most part, it veers a little too close to the farcical at times, making it hard to really feel settled in this world.
Mikkelsen is breaking his mould of suave, sophisticated villain here, instead bulking up and bearding out into a brick wall of a man who is emotionally cut off from his daughter and refusing to face up to his grief. His ability to keep a straight face amongst the noise and nonsense of the more absurd performances around him is what just about keeps the shifts in tone grounded, and it makes the moments where his raw feelings break through all the more impactful.
Gadeberg as Mathilde is the heart of the film, frustrated at her dad’s lack of impulse control and worried that she’ll end up that way too. She forms a sweet connection with Otto, beautifully expressed when he sees the post-it notes she has stuck to her wall showing the events of that day, trying to figure out why it had to be her mum that died. “I’ve been looking for a reason”, she says, “but there isn’t one”. “There is”, Otto explains, talking about the infinite threads of human action that lead to them being on the train that day: “there’s a centillion reasons, but they won’t help you”.
Through the characters’ search for meaning – and someone to blame – for the fatal train crash that brought them together, Riders of Justice explores the notion of coincidence, probability, and the butterfly effect. Can something ever really be an accident if there are always a million different tiny choices that cause it? Is it possible to statisticise your way to an answer for everything? And what happens when the answer that makes the most sense isn’t the one that’s true? What makes Riders of Justice that little bit special is how it confronts these questions, and delves deeper through its outer layers of traditional revenge thriller and spoofy action to reveal a softer, more soulful centre. For all their differences, the extended ensemble comes together to form a weird, wonderful kind of family unit, the unique qualities of each combining to somehow make them all better people.
It’s bizarrely funny, beautifully shot and brutally violent at times. If you can get on board with its wry Scandinavian attitude, Riders of Justice is an entertaining, curious gem.
Director: Anders Thomas Jensen
Producers: Sisse Graum Jørgensen, Sidsel Hybschmann
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Andrea Heick Gadeberg
All images courtesy of Vertigo Releasing / Glasgow Film Festival