After a tragic accident leaves Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) widowed and responsible for the care of his teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), he struggles to understand her need for answers. To add complications to the matter, there was another man on the train where Markus’ wife died, and that man thinks he has those answers. Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kass) is obsessed with the idea that everything in life is intrinsically connected – that if you pull back far enough, eventually every moment becomes a dot that can be linked to every other dot. With his colleagues Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmanthaler (Nicolas Bro), Otto approaches Markus with his belief that a criminal organization was responsible for the “accident”, and Markus is set down a path of revenge in Anders Thomas Jensen’s latest pitch black comedy, Riders of Justice.
Describing Riders of Justice as a “black comedy” stretches the notion of humor a little thin, but it does fit in line with all of Jensen’s films to a degree. Since his feature debut in 2000 with Flickering Lights, the director has always balanced a twisted absurd humor with levels of drama to one degree or another, although his latest does tilt things further into the heavy and emotional direction than anything that he’s done before. As he hits middle-age, there’s a clear lean towards existential reflection on the meaning of life and our place within it throughout Riders of Justice, as those questions about whether life is completely random or all connected and predestined loom large over the characters in the film.
Naturally, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but Markus is far too black and white of a man to accept those nuances. A soldier with a penchant for violence, Markus hears that someone is responsible for the death of his wife and he moves on his mission at breakneck speed. This is Mikkelsen’s fifth collaboration with Jensen, as the duo have made all of the director’s films together, yet it’s the first time the actor is playing the straight man in one of their films. While many know Mikkelsen as a charming villain from Casino Royale and Hannibal, or an emotionally devastating everyman from Danish films The Hunt and Another Round, his collaborations with Jensen are where he usually gets to let loose and go all in on exaggerated characters with a tendency towards the absurd.
Here, Mikkelsen is all brooding pain and internalized aggression, a stoic performance matched up against the Three Stooges trio of Otto, Lennart, and Emmanthaler. Those characters, particularly the latter (marvelously played by Bro), are a riot when they’re on the screen, and this juxtaposition between them and Markus is the perfect distillation of the film’s overall tonal balance that keeps the audience guessing from one scene to another. You never truly know where Riders of Justice is going to go next, from both a tone and plot standpoint, which is just how Jensen likes it.
While the Oscar-winning Another Round may have recently been announced for an American remake, it’s hard to imagine how Riders of Justice (or any of Jensen’s films) could be copied overseas, as this particular brand of dark humor feels specifically Danish in the best of ways. While that tonal balance can at times remind one of the work of the Coen brothers, there’s something unique about just how far Jensen is willing to take things, and how impressively he’s able to thread that needle to keep the laughs, excitement, and pathos coming in practically every scene.
This may just be the strongest of Jensen and Mikkelsen’s collaborations yet, maintaining the rhythm that the two of them have established and the strength in their distinctive characters, while also pushing into an interesting new direction with engaging themes that leave you ruminating on your place in the world long after the credits roll. There is always something more on Jensen’s mind, and here we are really able to probe into the ideas he’s conflicted over as a man struggling to make sense of the world, just as all of the characters in the film are. Perhaps they all represent some side of the filmmaker, or some side of all of us – constantly at battle in our minds to see who will rein supreme.
At the end of it all, what Riders of Justice ultimately boils down to is that none of it really matters as long as you have family and community. The devastation of having family taken away from you, and the gift of establishing a new found family, are both felt over the course of the film, speaking to the broad spectrum of emotions that Jensen is able to tap into with these characters and this story. Riders of Justice is a riveting thrill ride, a brutal revenge story, an uproarious comedy, and a complex existential treatise on the nature of existence, and somehow Jensen is able to blend all of those ingredients into a mixture that goes down smooth and never once feels tonally out of character. It’s a marvel.
Riders of Justice will be released in LA & NY theaters on May 14th, and in theaters everywhere and on VOD on May 21st