The desire to build order from chaos, to establish a reason why things happen and predict what will come next based on what has already occurred, is enticing to many (this reviewer certainly is counted amongst that group). Such a notion is the starting point for writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Riders of Justice,” but it is certainly not the ending.
In point of fact, more than one person in “Riders of Justice” is looking to understand why things happen. First, there is the triumvirate of Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Lennart (Lars Brygmann), and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), a team that has been working on a computer algorithm that has the potential to make predictions. Then there is Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), who, following a train accident in which her mother dies, creates a wall of Post-It notes designed to find the reason why she is in her current situation. As Otto was on the train that crashed as well, their lives become intertwined in this undeniably black comedy.
I am at this point tempted to continue the review without ever mentioning the character of Markus, who is Mathilde’s father and also responsible for the intertwining with Otto. It would be a weird choice as the character is played by Mads Mikkelsen and is undoubtedly the chief member of the ensemble, but somehow it would also be right.
“Riders of Justice” is all about Markus, Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler determining why the train crashed and then going after the gang (named Riders of Justice) they believe to be responsible. It is the way this motley group of men have chosen to bring order from the chaos of their lives, and it is the way Markus has decided, even if it is subconscious, to go about reinserting himself in his daughter’s life after an extended absence while in the military. Markus is a black pit of emotion, sucking in trouble after trouble after trouble, trying to keep it all buried deep inside, but every once in a while regurgitating his problems in a bit of true violence.
And, if none of this sounds particularly funny, that’s only because you haven’t heard some of the off the wall discussions or witnessed some of the incredible actions of these men. They are all, each and every one, a series of tics and foibles. It is, as noted, a deeply black comedy.
The genius of “Riders of Justice” is not that Jensen manages to add humor to the story of one soldier and three math/computer geeks going after a gang, but rather that he is able to tell that story and make it deeply touching. The men, along with Mathilde, her boyfriend, and another character who pops up along the way (that would be telling) end up forming a family of sorts. Even through the lies that get passed around (Mathilde is unaware of what is happening), they reach a deeper understanding of who they are, what they need, and what those around them in the group need. As they come in greater contact with one another and spend more time together, the adults end up playing surrogate parents to Mathilde in ways that Markus cannot do alone, and through their discussions and actions work past their traumas. It is fascinating to watch unfold.
In fact, those family moments end up being the biggest strength the film has going for it. The actual revenge story—the purported reason why we are there—winds up to be far weaker. There are interesting aspects to the revenge bit, but after this family unit has formed anytime that they still find themselves more focused on the external, the movie is a disappointment. It is simply not as compelling in its action moments as it is in its dramatic ones.
From the early portion of the film, it would be exceptionally difficult to predict this shift occurring, but it does indeed happen. One does wonder, keeping in concert if the film, if some sort of insane index-card-red-string-and-push-pin conspiracy wall may have been able to work it out. Either that or a computer algorithm or Post-Its stuck to a wall.
Make no mistake, “Riders of Justice” has some truly bloody, very dark, things going on, but the characters at its core are very human and often very funny (perhaps excluding Markus). Those who watch it hoping for the action sequences won’t find themselves unhappy, but those who select it as an opportunity to think a little bit about human nature/cause and effect are more likely to be pleased. If they don’t mind the brutality.
photo credit: Rolf Konow/Magnet