As a general rule, it is safe to say that the human brain is not a fan of accidents. Most great discoveries throughout the course of history originated from the drive that people have to understand why things happen. We analyse art to get the intention of its creator, examine pieces of matter to understand how they were formed and study history to avoid repeating its mistakes.
Despite our best efforts to ignore it, the fact remains that life is full of surprises and coincidences. Of course, you could still look at any accident from a logical perspective. If a friend spills coffee all over you because he tripped on something, there is a specific series of events that led to this point — maybe he was distracted because he was thinking about his job, which he chose because of his own personal history, and maybe this job is what led you two to become friends, and maybe someone else in his past made him try coffee for the first time… But in the end, so many factors came into play for this specific moment to have happened that it would be impossible to explain in a satisfactory way to a small human brain. And most importantly, none of this thinking exercise would distract from the most pressing element of this story: some guy just spilled coffee all over your clothes, and no amount of knowledge is going to un-stain them.
This realisation is a lot harder to apply in accidents that go beyond being inconvenient and instead prove how truly unfair life can turn out to be. When Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) hurries home from military deployment to his teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) after his wife is killed in an unfortunate train accident, even his best attempts at keeping a straight face can’t hide the pain he is living in. We don’t know much about Markus and what led him to a military life; what we will gather about the past will be through snide remarks, side glances, a tension in the air between two people coming to terms with having to keep living life without the one person who defined it. However, we do know that Markus has seen death up close too many times to still believe that it makes any sense. He has no choice but to embrace this new life with a daughter he doesn’t know much about anymore — if he ever did in the first place.
After this introduction, everything seems set in place for the film to develop into an understated look at a complicated father-daughter relationship rebuilding itself after such a huge loss; but the road that Anders Thomas Jensen chose to take is much less conventional. Soon, the main duo will face a lot more than they bargained for when a group of statisticians start suspecting that the accident may not have been an accident after all… a theory that Markus is all too eager to latch onto.
Riders of Justice is a story about grief as much as a violent revenge tale, as well as an unforgiving philosophical look at death that can often turn out to be laugh out loud funny. Such an eclectic mix feels like it shouldn’t work, and it is therefore even more impressive to see that the film completely owns this bizarre mixture of genres.
While the most recognisable face of the film for international audiences will most likely be the always excellent Mads Mikkelsen, the other three main male characters (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann and Nicola Bro) sharing his spotlight in the cast are acclaimed actors with impressive resumes in Denmark, without a doubt deservedly so. The four senior actors have also worked together in the past, sometimes even underneath Anders’ direction (notably in Adam’s Apples or Flickering Lights).
The sense of familiarity between the actors and crew is one that can’t be faked, proving that this work is the result of years of professional evolution, both in front of and behind the camera. In this context, it is even more impressive that Andrea Heick Gadeberg, the only newcomer in the main cast at 22 years old with only one prior film credit to her name, fits so well within this group of seasoned actors. Mathilde may very well be the most normal character in this collection of tortured oddballs, and it is through her simplicity that she holds the film together. Gadeberg is completely believable in the role of a young woman who simply wants a normal life after her “normal” has been forcefully taken away from her, and through her performance quickly becomes the highlight of the film.
This is a cast of broken characters finding ways to make their flaws more bearable through dark humour and misguided quests, and the sheer originality of their journey makes Riders of Justice a truly compelling watch. We are witnessing the unexpected intersections of personalities finding some comfort in each other after an unexplainable tragedy, which often leads to many different character arcs to follow at once — and yet, Anders’ incredible handle on pacing makes this apparent complexity feel effortless. Black comedy aside, this is certainly no caricature, and turns out to be a rewarding watch. Full of maturity, well thought-out and thoroughly surprising, Anders Thomas Jensen has directed a revenge tale unlike any other.
Riders of Justice is out in NY and LA cinemas now and available on VOD from May 21st
by Callie Hardy
Callie (she/her) is a Belgian New Media student currently living in Dublin. She enjoys female-fronted horror, nostalgic adaptations of childhood classics and every outfit Blake Lively wears in A Simple Favor. She’s usually pretty honest, but if you catch her saying that her favourite film is anything other than Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, you should know that she’s lying. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd.