(RIDERS OF JUSTICE premieres in theaters on July 2)
On a regular afternoon in Denmark, a passenger train collides with another in a devastating accident. Dozens die, including the wife of Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), a soldier serving in the Middle East. Moments earlier, another man, Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), gave her his seat. If he hadn’t, he would have died in her place. Twenty meters away, a member of the murderous biker gang, Riders of Justice, was on his way to court to testify against his former brothers.
Emerging from the wreckage, Otto and Markus’ daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), are beset by grief. Then confusion, and, eventually, anger. None of what happened makes sense, not unless all of it makes sense. There are no coincidences, big nor small.
What follows is a sprawling, complex, and an ultimately humane modern fairy tale for adults. The kind of smart and compassionate film that hides its anger in gallows humor, never punching down while using action film tropes to unravel the ways we cope with sorrow.
RIDERS is also hysterically funny, but in a way where the laughter comes tinged with discomfort as you realize there’s very little to laugh at or because it hits too close to home in the first place. Either way, Anders Thomas Jensen’s eloquent script keeps you on your toes. But it’s never mean and never uses its characters — each standing in for a specific trauma — to elicit laughter at their expense. The situations are ludicrous, but their reactions aren’t.
The revenge film subgenre is inherently dated. It relies on an old-fashioned belief that there is always someone to blame. While some of the newer takes on the material have found ways to embrace these cliches, others still fall into the complicated swamp surrounding it. However, RIDERS succeeds in realizing that vengeance itself is a symptom, not the root cause. Everyone involved in lashing out violently is battling demons from much earlier, and not all of them defined just yet.
At the center of this is Mikkelsen’s stoic but volatile Markus, a man bred for wars he doesn’t understand. He’s the archetypical revenge-film protagonist in that he’s utterly masculine to the point of toxicity. Whether it’s pain or sorrow, there isn’t a feeling Markus doesn’t compartmentalize, and it’s the inhumanity of it all that keeps him going. But without a target to take out his anger, Markus is lost, having to deal with his own shortcomings in a way he can’t internalize.
Mikkelsen is brilliant, as always. His performance heavy and lumbering, like Markus, is carrying a cross we can’t see. Every doorframe feels too small for him, and he’s uncomfortable in his own body. His stillness isn’t so much of choice, as it is a coping mechanism. If he doesn’t move, he doesn’t have to deal with whatever hurts him.
Director Jensen builds the tension around actors previously known for mostly comedic work, and the risk pays off. As Otto, Lie Kaas displays an immense range worthy of wider recognition. His striking features hide behind a grizzly beard and heavy glasses. Defined by his losses, Otto seeks connection wherever he can find it, be that in coincidence or chaos, and embraces the opportunity for salvation in a way only a one-armed man can.
As Otto’s best – and only – friends, Lars Brygmann and Nicolas Bro bring a wealth of humor and warmth to their parts. Both are men ravaged by an indecent society, and neither has matured with grace because of it. Brygmann and Bro both mine the complex material for anchoring elements in familiar repetitive patterns and ticks, but neither uses trauma as a cheap acting tool. RIDERS doesn’t elaborate on the how and why, and it’s not necessary, either. Instead, for once, it feels like those cinema loves to displace are finally seen.
Holding her own alongside them is the wonderful Andrea Heick Gadeberg, as Mathilde. Apart from Mikkelsen, hers is the most difficult role in the film. One that could easily collapse under itself into a weepy stereotype. But Gadeberg is more than up to the task, imbuing Mathilde with a striking vastness as she tries to come to terms with a life she didn’t want.
While RIDERS is sold as an action film, it largely defies easy classification. It’s certainly funny to the point of comedy and tragic and heartwarming at the same time. There are bursts of action and shocking violence, yet neither feel gratuitous. Jensen balances each element superbly, never allowing the audience to grow comfortable before he swerves wildly in another direction.
In lesser hands, such an act would quickly grow tiresome. Yet Jensen isn’t new to this, and his previous efforts with bleakly comic material like ADAM’S APPLES and WILBUR WANTS TO DIE are great indications of what to expect. Unlike those two, RIDERS might be the most accessible film to date, but it comes with the same lack of compromises.
RIDERS is a film you want to recommend for everyone. Even those who might flinch at the thought of difficult themes and violent content. This is a thoughtful, compassionate affair, the kind you remember missing as you experience it. You feel safe in its hands, even as it careens towards fates that feel inevitable and horrifying.
By the end, as the grip loosens, it feels like there’s an empty hole where the film should be, and the only salve is to see it again.