Although emphatically a Danish film, Riders Of Justice (Retfærdighedens rytter) opens with an idyllic Yuletide scene in Tallinn, Estonia, as a teenaged girl and her uncle – whose big white beard makes him a deadringer for Santa Claus – go shopping at the markets for the bicycle that she would like for Christmas. Amid the snow and fairy lights, the girl says she would prefer to wait till a blue bike becomes available, rather than the red one that is there and ready. “Nothing is certain in life,” cautions her uncle gently, “Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t” – but she still asks the salesman to order her a blue one. So it happens that the blue bicycle of teenage Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) is stolen in Denmark, just as her mother Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind), unable to get the car to start, receives a call from her husband Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) telling her that his tour of duty has just been extended for another three months. Annoyed, and knowing that she cannot get Mathilde to school on time, Emma suggests that mother and daughter have a day off together. Accordingly they get on a train, where, moments after kindly stranger Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) offers his seat to Emma, she is killed as another train shears through where she has just sat down.
Riders of Justice is a film about grief and guilt – Mathilde’s, Markus’ and Otto’s – as all three try, in their different ways, to make sense of the inexplicable and the accidental. Yet it is also, as its strange introductory sequence suggests, a film about the mysteries of cause and effect, free will and determinism. By coincidence – or is it? – Otto is a programmer working, with little success, on a Devs-like algorithm which, if fed enough statistical data about the past, ought to be able accurately to model the future. Obsessed with numbers and patterns, Otto becomes convinced that the train collision was no accident, and quickly recruits his colleagues Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) to help identify those to blame. Meanwhile Emma pins post-it notes all over her bedroom wall as she tries to discern the precise causal chain which led to her mother’s death – and Markus, now returned to Denmark on compassionate leave, skips most of the ‘stages of grief’, jumping straight to anger. Out of touch with his emotions and spurning all help, this tight-wound professional soldier needs an enemy as an outlet for his rage – and he finds one when Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler point him towards the biker gang ‘Riders of Justice’ that they hold responsible for Emma’s death. Soon the trio of computer nerds and a Ukrainian rent boy (Gustav Lindh) have moved into Markus’ mancave-like barn, and are helping him follow a bloody path of revenge that might just also be a salutary road to recovery for all of them.
Reuniting the dream team of Mikkelsen, Kaas and Bro from his previous features The Green Butchers (2003), Adam’s Apples (2005) and Men and Chicken (2015), writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen has crafted a tale of ultraviolence and anger mismanagement that is somehow also a sweet buddy pic and family flick, filled with both the chaotic mayhem of wayward masculinity and the miraculous spirit of Christmas giving. In a film where the darkest night always comes before the mourning, the comedy is pitch black to match the murkiness of the characters’ morality – but the feeling remains that, had fate had not brought this motley crew together (both to administer therapy and murder bikers), they might all have been left to face life’s misery alone. Viewers can easily connect the dots in this narrative – but as Jensen explores the arbitrariness of existence and the problem of evil, in the end it is the human connections which really count.
© Anton Bitel