We each think about life on our own terms, leaning toward the existential explanations that provide us with the most comfort. Some rest their hopes in a guiding higher power with a pre-ordained plan, some people believe in free will, others in karma, and there are even those who say that existence is a random set of events without meaning or significance. How you choose to understand life is up to you. However, it’s simply impossible to ignore causality or the interconnection of seemingly random events. We know this idea as the butterfly effect or chaos theory – the understanding that a small, seemingly insignificant event can radically impact the future. Something as simple as a Grandfather buying his Granddaughter a bike, for example. We can never with any certainty explain why life plays out how it does or what exactly dictates the direction of history, but it sure is interesting to take a look.
With Riders Of Justice, Anders Thomas Jensen takes an emotionally potent yet satirical look at chaos theory in action. We start with a fairy-tale opening in which an elderly man pledges a cherry red bike to his beloved granddaughter. The scene glitters with Christmassy warmth, designed to accentuate the innocence of the utterly lovely yet completely mundane event. Little do they know that this seemingly arbitrary purchase will set off a chain of events with very dire consequences. We jump into the future, where that same little girl, now a teenager, has had that very same bike stolen from her at the train station. Unable to get to school, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) calls her mother Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind) for a lift. However, before the pair can set off, they are interrupted by an overseas phone call from Markus (Mads Mikkelsen, both father and husband, respectively), informing them that his military service will last for a further three months than expected. Disappointed, the mother and daughter duo decide to shoulder all responsibility and treat themselves to a day in the City.
Across town, Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his colleague Lennart (Lars Brygmann) pitch an algorithm designed to predict the future to a panel of corporate officials. However, they are laughed out of the room and fired before fully able to communicate their ideas. Otto catches an early train home on which he swaps seats with Emma just moments before another train collides with their carriage. The impact kills Emma and several other passengers, most crucially a key witness in the trial against the titular biker gang, Riders of Justice. CCTV footage of a suspicious-looking passenger with a Joe & the Juice sandwich leads Otto to believe the Riders of Justice have orchestrated the crash, and he recruits Lennart and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) to gather intelligence. Feeling guilty and unable to convince the police of his suspicions, Otto and his tech-wizz geek gang turn to Markus, setting him on a path of violent revenge.
Still Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival
Though it begins as a fairly conventional crime caper, Riders of Justice steps further out of the mainstream with every bonkers plot point. The central trio of middle-aged nerds, who become enthralled with Markus’ heavy-handed vengeance crusade, are effortlessly loveable and brilliantly hysterical. Their consistent flow of mean-spirited, witty banter plays beautifully alongside Mikkelsen’s stoic and intense ferocity. A running gag in which Lennart becomes delightfully obsessed with Markus’ large barn works as an inspiring example of the film’s comic genius. The film morphs from a straight-laced thriller into an offbeat black comedy, featuring a slew of charming and kooky characters alongside a delicious amount of macabre humour. Yet, although the actors each pitch in a variety of welcome tones and seem perfectly harmonised in their absurdist execution, some gags fail to hit the mark: an overwhelming amount of fat jokes regularly punch down, ruining the film’s whimsical tone and warm-hearted rhythm.
Delusional details spiral out of control, making for an entertaining ride. However, there are also tinges of sadness littered throughout the film: mental health issues, sexual abuse, grief, PTSD. Each character is working through their own set of problems. The film delivers a heavy therapy narrative, centring around Mathilde, who resents her father for turning down the hospital’s offer of counselling sessions – he has one of those meaningless, godless takes on life. She fears his rash behaviour (he punches her boyfriend in the mouth) and begrudges his pushy opinions (he thinks she should lose weight), but most of all, she doesn’t want to adopt his hopeless and cynical approach to life. So, in an attempt to keep Mathilde in the dark surrounding his plans to seek revenge on the Riders of Justice, Markus has Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler pretend to be therapists. Surprisingly, the trio, having lived through their own traumas, make for excellent listeners and mediators, and the group morphs into a tight, protective family unit. Though completely crackers and frustratingly wild, it’s these sweet and utterly charming bonds that genuinely make Riders of Justice something special.
The film is an intriguing change of pace for Mads Mikkelsen; between this and Another Round, it appears as if he’s leaning into a new and somewhat more exciting direction as an actor. Riders of Justice is a compelling piece of work, and we can only wonder where this role will lead Mikkelsen next.
Dir: Anders Thomas Jensen
Scr: Anders Thomas Jensen
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Lars Brygmann, Nicolas Bro, Nikolaj Lie Kaas
DOP: Kasper Andersen
Riders of Justice premiered at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Vertigo will release in Spring 2021.