In 2015, I watched an amusing, repulsive Danish film at TIFF starring Hannibal Lecter, where he played a man who is a chicken…or of a chicken…or half chicken. In any event, chickens and men were involved. The film was, in fact, Chickens and Men, and it was my introduction to the cinema of Anders Thomas Jensen.
Five years later, Jensen follows up that under-appreciated absurdist delight with Riders of Justice, a pitch-black revenge dramedy starring Mads Mikkelsen (the aforementioned Lecter) as a man out for vengeance. When his wife dies in a train accident, veteran soldier Markus (Mikkelsen) returns to Denmark from active duty to be with his grieving daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). As the pair struggles to find comfort in each other’s company, Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a data scientist specializing in statistics—who also happened to be on the train with Mathilde and her mother—begins to suspect foul play and sets out to find the cause of the accident. With the help of fellow statistician Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and tightly-wound computer hacker Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), Otto begins to suspect that the titular gang, the Riders of Justice, may be involved in the crash. They convince Markus to help them in their quest, and the unlikely collective sets out to even the score.
Revenge tales can be dour affairs, all grim posturing and one-liners. They can also be self-referential to the point of parody. Some revenge tales are worthwhile generic exercises, while others bask in their own gravitas. These aren’t often very good films. Riders of Justice, however, is a very good film.
From the opening strains of “Little Drummer Boy,” to the song’s reprise in the film’s finale, Riders of Justice unambiguously explores themes of trauma, grief, chance, and coincidence. Both subtle and bombastic, Jensen revels equally in brutal violence and quiet conversation. Kasper Tuxen’s crisp, surprisingly unobtrusive cinematography shines, even on a television screen, making me all the more nostalgic for an audience-centric experience. At Midnight, perhaps?
While the film, at times, embraces tropes that border on the stereotypical (The Veteran, The Teen, The Gang Leader, etc.), for a genre picture, there is a distinct lack of irony or cynicism. Instead, trauma is confronted with unexpected nuance, care, and humour. Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler provide much of the film’s comedic relief—their droll, caustic, even deadpan approach complementing Mikkelsen’s hardened avenger.
When the blood starts flowing and the justice has firmly been taken into the hands of Markus, the inclusion of the Marxian (as in, Groucho, et al.) scientists gives the film its uniquely dark charm. In one exceptionally funny scene, Markus teaches them how to properly assemble an automatic rifle. The juxtaposition of these two worlds is deftly handled by Jensen, who further celebrates the power of contrast in the scenes between Markus and Mathilde. Their fractured relationship, which is exacerbated by the death of the mother, is tenderly explored, and Gadeberg more than holds her own against the grizzled, formidable Mikkelsen.
In Riders of Justice, Anders Thomas Jensen portrays life as both pain and love, where we must accept others into our orbit—into an ecosystem of care—and build a family, a chosen family. A family who will help us navigate an otherwise indifferent and violent world.
Life doesn’t always make sense. It can be cruel and painful. There is death and misfortune, but it is unreasonable to try to hide from these things. Like trauma, we must confront these unavoidable parts of our all-too-human existence. Trying to make sense of our world—and our place in it—is not always easy, but it’s what makes living, surviving, and healing all the more beautiful. And that’s what makes Riders of Justice such a cathartic—and worthwhile—watch.