It’s not often that the genre of the revenge thriller gets upended to be something almost completely unrecognisable from its stablemates; but in director Anders Thomas Jensen’s almost uncategorisable Danish film Riders of Justice the remarkable writing and characterisation creates something that defies viewer expectations and leads down a wholly original path.
In the lead up to Christmas, a young Estonian girl asks for a blue bicycle from her grandfather. The bicycle seller is part of an international gang and puts a call out for one to be stolen. That bicycle belongs to a teen called Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) and the theft of the bike leads to a series of events that eventually leads to the death of her mother, Emma on a Danish commuter train. Also on the train, is recently fired statistician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kags) who offers Emma his seat. Also on the train, is a biker criminal who is about to testify against the leader of the group The Riders of Justice. Another man that Otto notices depart the train just before the accident disposes of an expensive sandwich and juice, which raises Otto’s suspicions: what if the accident wasn’t an accident at all but a planned assassination of the witness? With his background in statistics it seems almost mathematically impossible that the train accident wasn’t somehow planned.
Roping in his long-time friends, fellow statistician Lennart (Lars Brygman) and hacker Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), Otto finds his way to Mathilde’s father Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) with his proof that the accident that made Markus a widower was not an accident and that in fact the Riders of Justice are responsible.
Markus is a closed off soldier who refuses to help Mathilde grieve and by nature is looking for someone to blame for what happened to his wife. He forms a strange posse with Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler (who by any measure are an absurd trio of misfits) and plans to extract revenge from the biker group.
In most other films, this set up would lead to a set conclusion, but Jensen subverts the tropes that make up the vengeance movie with a sly sense of very dark humour and some top tier character creation. Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler are each damaged and strange men who haven’t quite managed to learn how to function as adults. Markus is too walled-off from his emotions to allow for himself or his daughter to seek post trauma therapy. Yet somehow in all the chaos that ensues, as they track down the biker gang, therapy is exactly what is happening. It doesn’t come necessarily in the cathartic act of gunning down the bad guys, but in the strange mix of personalities that improbably learn from each other as the narrative progresses.
The film also plays with the conventions of purpose and meaning; existential questions are asked and often the answer is left in the air. What has meaning? Is it the likelihood that we will experience pain and joy in our lives? What can we plan for? What does each moment signify, especially if those moments when connected, spiral into something that we cannot ever fully comprehend?
Riders of Justice doesn’t take the audience where they expect to go. Yes, there is a surfeit of grief and violence, but there is also pathos and profound understanding. As much as Mads Mikkelsen is excellent in the film, it is the supporting cast, particularly Nikolaj Lie Kags who breathe a deep humanity and surprising humour to the piece. A peculiar family is formed by those who ride for justice (the title’s double meaning becomes clear), and once along for the ride, the unexpected becomes one of the film’s chief pleasures.