' ' Cinema Romantico: Riders of Justice

Monday, September 13, 2021

Riders of Justice

After the unexpected death of Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind), a grief counselor tells both her daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) and husband Marcus (Mads Mikkelsen) to expect that neither of them will grieve quite the same way. After all, grief, goes the saying, takes many forms. Yet so many movies exploring this topic tend to ignore that universally accepted maxim, distilling their versions of grieving down to a single genre, comedy or drama, or action or thriller. Anders Thomas Jensen’s Danish sorta-epic “Riders of Justice” is not your normal movie, both in terms of quality and content. Absurd and sad, funny and violent, it encompasses every tone in the rainbow. How often can a reviewer compare a movie to both every Liam Neeson revenge thriller ever made and Peter Chelsom’s forgotten 2003 destiny-obsessed rom com “Serendipity.”

“Riders of Justice” begins with Mathilde’s bike being stolen, commencing a series of quick scenes that concludes when the train Mathilde is taking with her mother crashes into another train, killing the latter. The way Jensen and his co-editors Anders Albjerg Kristiansen and Nicolaj Monbergcompose this sequence, several seemingly isolated events like another girl wanting a bike similar to Mathilde’s and a man on the train, Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), giving his seat to Emma just before the crash, create the impression that they are not random but cosmically strung together. Destiny. This is further epitomized in Otto’s line of work, seen giving a presentation where he argues that coincidences are always the work of something larger, merely lacking sufficient data to prove it. The crash gives him his chance for proof, seeking out Mathilde’s father to pitch his theory that some strange men he saw on the train connect to a larger conspiracy.

Marcus is a soldier, stationed in Afghanistan as the movie opens, but summoned home after his wife’s death to care for his daughter. That does not go well. Though his character is closed off and detached, Jensen is smart enough not to distill Marcus’s psychology simply down to the empty beer cans surrounding him. No, the military man is an atheist, undoubtedly culled from his time on the battlefield, and when Mathilde asks him about the afterlife, he casually and cruelly explains that when someone’s gone, they’re gone. Mikkelsen’s intense dispassion in these moments comes across like some spiritually deficient metallic surface his daughter’s palpable desperation for connection just bounces right off. And though he doesn’t necessarily mean it that way, Marcus seems to argue for a meaningless in this world, one that sends his own daughter grappling for any kind of meaning at all, eventually devising a flowchart on her bedroom wall to try and formulate her own conspiracy theory.  

Otto pinpoints the possible perpetrators as the Riders of Justice motorcycle gang, seeking to eliminate a witness from testifying against them. This is both a red herring and revealing in so much as the real Riders of Justice of “Riders of Justice” becomes Marcus and his motley crew, including not just Otto but Otto’s colleague Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and their portly hacker friend Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). Though they band together to hunt down and kill the perpetrators, it is mostly Marcus doing the killing. These scenes are furious bursts of violence though it is not, refreshingly, graphic violence for graphic violence’s sake but an illustration of how here, on a twisted version of the battlefield, with an avowed enemy, Marcus excels, the cold-blooded efficiency of his warpath juxtaposed against the mess of things in his homelife.

The men scheme their retribution in the cavernous barn on Marcus’s property, prompting questions from Mathilde about just what’s going on. Therapy, her father says. It is a lie providing his daughter false hope, though what makes “Riders of Justice” truly great is how it stretches narrative notes like this one. Mathilde wants to have a therapy session too, causing Lennart, emboldened by his own 4,000 hours of therapy, to slip into the part of analyst. This has all the makings of a classic comedy scene, especially given Brygmann’s wonky deportment, but once the scene gets rolling, it evokes the blissful tendency of “Riders of Justice” to always zig. Just as “Riders of Justice” always takes Mathilde seriously as a character, rather than merely a reflective character of her father, it takes this scene seriously too, allowing for a genuine back and forth between Mathilde and her pretend therapist that yields something like genuine progress. 

This sequence also illuminates “Riders of Justice” as being a therapeutic process unto itself, this unlikely band of misfits not necessarily working out but working through their issues. The portly Emmenthaler, an overgrown child whose self-loathing is frightfully, funnily brought straight to the surface by Bro, would seem to have nothing in common with the muscular, macho Marcus. But when the nouveau Riders of Justice go into the woods for arms training, Emmenthaler demonstrates himself as adept with a weapon as Marcus, suggesting they are not so different, until the moment of truth when he can’t pull the trigger. That Emmenthaler falls completely apart, then, only underscores how close Marcus himself likely is to falling apart too, men hanging on my virtual threads. 

There’s a shot near the end, looking up at Markus as he kneels in his barn, making it seem for all the world like he’s kneeling at a pew, his hands briefly threatening to fold in prayer only to clench his fists instead, emblemizing the whole balance this film rests on, in trying to find comfort or dispensing with it for vengeance instead. In the end, though, “Riders of Justice” does not exactly give us either. A late movie moment in which the rug gets pulled not so much out from under us as them undermines the notion that everything happens for a reason and leaves the characters floating in a kind of virtual ether, unmoored from their sense of putting things right. That might make it appear odd when the movie still climaxes with a thunderous discharging of arms and frames its motley crew as heroes. Jensen, though, brilliantly wants us to give us the traditional ending in order to go right past it, to another ending, a little weird, a little funny, a little uncomfortable, suggesting that there is still emotional work to do. 

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