Riders of Justice
aka Retfærdighedens Ryttere
Anders Thomas Jensen’s ruminative comedy-thriller (or should that be thriller-comedy? Neither does it justice) is one of those perfectly pitched pictures that gauges its tonal shifts with deceptive ease. The kind of movie that might have been no more than a slickly well-oiled genre vehicle, satisfyingly cathartic in its action beats and laugh out loud in its eccentric character foibles, were it not for the genuinely affecting meditation on loss and forgiveness at its core. To that extent, Riders of Justice put me in mind of the work of Martin McDonagh.
At the heart of the picture is a philosophical meditation, one that elicits tangible effects upon its characters, rather than simply operating as a prop or casual banner. By this measure, it is statistician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kass), rather than soldier Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), who is Riders of Justice’s crucial enabler, and also key to its most moving moments.
Otto gives up his seat on a train for Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind) and her daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg); moments later, another train crashes into the carriage, resulting in Emma’s death. Otto, who does not believe in coincidences – not out of some high-flown regard for synchronicity, but because, to his mind, any event is entirely explicable, given sufficient data – becomes convinced the crash was no accident, and after the police dismiss his findings, he enlists oddball cohorts Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) to prove this, taking his evidence to Markus, Emma’s husband and Mathilde’s father.
Mathilde is on a similarly deductive path, except that she traces the chain of events back to the theft of her bike (we see this bike ultimately given to another girl as a Christmas present). In an inspired scene, Otto discovers the Post-it notes on her bedroom wall depicting this sequence and sagely tells her “It’s a waste of time”; “I know” she replies. He clarifies this isn’t because there’s no reason involved, as her dad attempted to persuade her, but because “There’s a centillion reasons. But they won’t help you”.
This mathematical precision, statistical certainty – or odds suggesting close enough to one – is itself called into question by the picture’s twist, that the key party linking the train to a Riders of Justice conspiracy (the Riders being a biker gang), identified through facial recognition software, was only someone who looked very like him; the crash was indeed an accident. Rigid formulae and zeroes and ones can only guide one so far, and we can see how Otto’s world – despite his sensitivity and self-awareness – offers a retreat from the pain of his own mistakes, whereby he was responsible for the death of his wife and daughter. We witness similar remove in the fragile emotional states of Lennart (sexually abused as a child) and Emmenthaler (a victim of bullying).
And so too, this links in to Markus’ different mode of detachment, as a man trained to kill who must compartmentalise yet is not very good at it. His unwillingness to “get help” regarding his grief and anger issues is, on one level, entirely understandable (particularly when someone as challenged as Lennart can pass himself off as a therapist). But we also see his destructive influence, polluting his daughter’s mechanisms for dealing with the tragedy. She notes her grandfather believed in God; “…but he wasn’t that smart” Markus tells her. There’s no point in dwelling on where Emma is, or worrying that she may be alone: “She’s nothing now. She’s gone”. Eventually, sparked by the realisation his revenge quest has been for naught, Markus too reaches crisis point, and Otto coaxes him to realisation that his relationship with his daughter is still there to be mended: “It costs time. But you have time. So use it”.
Jensen isn’t banging a drum for a comprehensive metaphysical conception of existence, but he’s clearly of a disposition, accentuated by the picture’s embrace of festive trappings and a soundtrack infused with soaring choirs, that Markus’ frosty worldview most likely won’t be enough to get one through the hard times. One might see the surrogate family assembled at the conclusion as a little trite, were one to related it to the likes of Vin Diesel’s Furious fam, but it’s rather a case of bolstering the core, damaged unit than replacing it.
And the meaningfulness of Otto’s explanation of cause carries further, into the validity of the mistaken path the picture depicts; if Otto had not made the error, Markus might never have reconciled with his daughter, male prostitute Bodashka (Gustav Lindh) would surely have been subjected to further abuse (and likely, at some point, death) and the Riders of Justice would doubtless have continued riding around, perpetrating many and varied crimes.
Riders of Justice is also often very funny, be it Markus’ simmering irritation with the instructions all and sundry are relaying to him (to the extent of breaking Otto’s nose and throwing him out of the car at one point), the incessant bickering between Lennart and Emmenthaler, or Lennart’s idiosyncratic attempts to help Mathilde (“You’re a chubby little salami”) and Bodashka’s “meaningful” “old Ukrainian legend about coincidences”. There’s no weak spot in the ensemble of performers, but Brygmann and Bro clearly relish revelling in the most off-the-wall roles.
Were this a Hollywood movie – as any remake doubtless will be – Riders of Justice would inevitably have pitched headlong into vapid sentiment. And were it more indie in sensibility, it would surely have resisted an upbeat ending; Jensen, who has steered clear of Hollywood, although he had his fingers singed as a credited writer on the botched The Dark Tower, knows not to turn a tragedy into a tragic movie. Another picture would have concluded with Markus dying; Jensen clearly appreciates this, cutting from his bleeding out to being sat festively in a horrific Christmas jumper with his new oddball comrades. Riders of Justice didn’t receive quite the same fanfare as Mikkelsen’s other Danish film of 2020 (Another Round), but it deserves every bit of the praise that has come its way.