A young girl and her mother are riding a subway train when an accident occurs, killing the mother and leaving the daughter injured but alive. Her father, a military man, comes home from active duty to care for his daughter and make arrangements for the funeral. Days later, he’s approached by a stranger, a fellow rider of that same subway, who believes it was not an accident, but purposeful sabotage, making the man’s wife and other riders nothing but collateral damage. With evidence pointing the way, the man, the stranger, and the stranger’s talented friends set about to invoke their own brand of justice.
The above summary fits any number of films in which a person with a certain set of skills is crossed in some personal way and engages in violence with a certain pure vengeance that rallies audiences over and again. If you put an actor like Mads Mikkelsen as “the man,” given his resume in productions like Polar (2019), Casino Royale (2006), King Arthur (2004), or even the tv series Hannibal (2013-2015), a certain expectation for calm, collected, and outrageous violence seems almost a certainty. Except that’s not what writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen creates with his dark dramedy Riders of Justice (Retfærdighedens Ryttere). It’s not some hollow actioner where violence takes center stage, but a shockingly profound exploration of trauma, grief, loneliness, and hope.
Based on a concept by Anders and Nikolaj Arcel (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2009), Riders delicately balances the terror of loss, the sheer void a sudden, unexpected death creates, with humor born out of natural interaction. In the trailer, Lars Brygmann’s Lennart bursts into laughter when asked by Mikkelsen’s Markus if he can hack into a server to acquire information on a potential lead. Given the context of the conversation, laughter seems like the worst possible thing, yet, Lennart’s reaction to the query is so pure, absent malicious intent, and somehow utterly ignorant of social niceties that the laugh becomes infectious to the audience. Why does Lennart laugh? Because the task is a simple one for him and Markus’s intensity seems somehow absurd to him given the ease of it. Of course, you can’t tell that from the trailer, which positions the exchange as straight man opposite a foil. If this is all Anders gave us, the poignancy present within the script would be vacant at worst, vapid at best. Instead, through the full tale, Anders subtly presents characters who are somehow broken yet function in spite of this. What we see as eccentric is just survival. So Lennart’s laugh or Markus’s scowl are just the representations of their respective scars. It’s the willingness to mine this depth throughout the course of Riders which makes it stand far apart from any one might attempt a comparison, even as the film heavy-handedly beats its message over the audience.
One such fascinating aspect of Riders is application of causality. In brief, it’s the theory that something only happens because something first happens to incite a reaction. A ball only rolls, for example, because you have rolled it. It’s an idea which conflicts with the notion of free will because if the choices you make are bound by the choices you made before that moment as well as all the decisions those around you made, then there is no free will. This, of course, brings up the horrifying thought that there is no coincidence, only the choices you don’t understand or couldn’t foresee. If one isn’t too careful, it can lead to the precipice of nihilism, leaving one totally hopeless with the absence of meaning. When it’s a film, the causality is fairly plain as Anders serves as all-powerful, all-knowing controller of destiny. Within the film, and reality, we truly only have control over our own choices and trying to understand the thousands upon millions of decisions made around us each day would be truly maddening. Yet, when faced with a certain hopelessness, we look for meaning. Is it coincidence? Is it planned? Is it part of something greater than we can see? Considering the film begins in Estonia before shifting to Denmark certainly positions the film to encourage the audience to consider the connection between what we know and what we don’t. In the process an actioner like Riders implies that the tragedy occurs because of a malignant force, enabling the audience to revel in the murder that follows under the guise of justice. Except these films don’t offer justice, they offer vengeance. There is zero accountability, zero chance for atonement, zero chance for reparations. Anders takes the appropriate time with the narrative so that his characters can consider their actions beyond the narrow scope of perceived justice. Here’s where the true depth and surprise of Riders lives as it challenges the audience to consider how unhealthy violence as a reaction to grief is, while also acknowledging that because of causality, if you are a violent person, there is little chance of avoiding this reaction without some semblance of hope or self-awareness.
The philosophical acuity is not the only striking aspect of Riders, but the beauty of the cinematography. It is entirely a mood. Utilizing the fact that the film is set primarily before Christmas, cinematographer Kasper Tuxen (Beginners) brings a coldness to nearly every scene, a kind of sterility which sucks the ambient color or life out of objects or people. With Riders being an exploration of grief, it shouldn’t be a surprise, yet one finds themselves taken aback by the staging and presentation of scenes. When Markus visits his wife’s body, the scene is shot from a distance, Mikkelsen and the gurney in a white room walled off in darkness, so that they two are the only things we see. This moment is isolating and staged so that we, the audience, must look upon this moment without distraction. It’s significant, not just for the story, but for the character as well. At this point in the story, we only know Markus as a soldier, so some indifference to death may apply, yet there’s no denying that he is shook by this specific loss. The rest of the film is similar, opting for tight shots to focus on character reactions, going wide when necessary to offer scope to a situation. Colors are not washed out, but tame and devoid of vibrancy. There is a shroud upon this story that only lifts by the end. How much it lifts is up to the audience to determine, though the shift in visual style does convey a certain lightness at the conclusion of the film, matching the somewhat whimsical look of the opening.
What unfolds within Anders’s Riders of Justice is an exploration of the light and darkness of humanity, of our search for answers, and the various ways in which healing can come. The violence which comes from a film built upon the film’s premise of vengeance-seeking is staged for maximum emotional impact versus physical, opting for simple and elegant over elaborate, making for more striking responses from the audience. What lingers, though, are the questions Anders presents and the strange hopefulness that flickers upon the credits roll, burning like the embers of a dying fire in the darkness of night. Marked by powerful performances from an ensemble cast, Riders of Justice culminates in one of the more surprising films of 2021.
In select theaters May 14th, 2021.
Available on VOD May 21st, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Riders in Justice website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.