Opening IFFR 2021, Riders of Justice sees Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen reunite the duo of Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, from The Green Butchers (2003) and Men & Chicken (2015). It contains multitudes, a spritely film that flits between revenge-thriller, broad comedy and Hawksian hangout film.
Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) swaggers through an unnamed warzone passing a joint around a military truck. He calls home to a family who, in grey Denmark, he seems happy to keep at arm’s length. Markus projects the essence of a Monster energy drink — a leftover, perhaps, from Mikkelsen’s collaboration with video game bro auteur Hideo Kojima — with a magnificent shaved head and beard. Meanwhile, geeky duo Otto (Lie Kaas) and Lennart (Lars Brygmann) pitch an algorithm to an uninterested government board. The race to keep up with global technologies haunts them, as Jensen pointedly hangs a solar system sun-dial above their heads. Their algorithm is a Minority Report-type predictive probability, but Otto doesn’t spot a train crash coming, one that he is caught up in, and which kills Markus’ wife.
Riders of Justice plods along as Markus returns to the Danish countryside to raise his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). The pair are traumatized, but Markus refuses them therapy. Despite warm lighting that makes their house look permanently centrally-heated, Markus’ military coldness, grief and heavy drinking causes him to completely fail at fathering. When he punches Mathilde’s boyfriend without provocation, the avenging angel mode that Mikkelsen has leant into is deflated. He is completely and willfully unlikeable. Markus eventually teams up with Otto and Lennart, when it becomes clear that a Neo-Nazi biker gang, The Riders of Justice, caused the explosion in an informant assassination.
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From there, Riders of Justice reveals its true form: a bloodthirsty, sexless Revenge of the Nerds . Jensen uses this scenario to scrutinize notions of masculinity, and ask for what we protect our family. Otto, Lennart and their hacker friend Emmanthaler (Nicolas Bro) pretend to be live-in therapists, helping to fix Markus and Mathilde while hunting The Riders. Markus is made happier and more functional by chasing violence and retribition. His symbolic military might finds a functional match in the nerds’ technological innovation — the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and a libertarian revenge dream. This presents the film’s intriguing moral challenge: to keep the viewer sympathizing with these happy-go-lucky fellas, even as their behavior increasingly shows them giving in to PTSD-induced rage.
Jensen’s strategy is to hold back. The camera moves in fixed and precise takes, and even during hand-held shots, it signals the grit of a trailer park rather than capturing any spontaneous interactions. The meticulous filmmaking choices make Riders of Justice’s tonal shifts difficult to read. When Emmanthaler kicks a dead body, this comic relief character shows a deeper malady. If the viewer is asked to distance their morality from their enjoyment of the characters’ relationships and the novelty of their scenario, then it isn’t clear from the performances or the film’s syrupy sub-plots.
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Otto even finds a kindred spirit in Mathilde, who has been playing her own probability game with sticky notes of how she could have avoided the crash. Otto, who has one arm, is presented with a conflict of empathy and condescention. Early on, Riders of Justice makes no mention of his indisposition, and the casual way that Otto gets on with things with one arm is positive, even if there is a lingering shot of a friend at dinner, cutting his food for him. Kaas’ performance is committed, but where the film starts out as a two hander, the plot machinations also turn him into a blissful victim, a mascot for the group who rarely gets into the same scrapes.
The Riders of Justice are barely characterized beyond a generic gang of thugs. The irony in Jensen’s title, presumably, is that the protagonists are in fact Riders of Justice, and the bikers are just bikers, whose interest in justice is nil. But without setting them up as antagonists in any thematic sense, they mostly recede. That isn’t an entirely unwelcome structure. Markus and Otto assemble the group, a makeshift family including Mathilde’s blue hair-dyed boyfriend and a sex worker, Bodashka (Gustav Lindh), who they rescue from an early caper and soon set to work cleaning their house in return for some agency. They fit into the model of the Howard Hawks family from Only Angels Have Wings (1939) to Rio Bravo (1959), with Mikkelsen keeping everyone together through an aura of laconic sorrow.
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By the time Riders of Justice ramps up its stakes, the final showdown hardly seems to matter as much as the gang’s presence. Jensen plays a sleight of hand: for a film that is shot like prestige TV, full of comic bits that don’t pay off, that is dour and tense in equal measure, he draws a large family of compelling characters. And that makes Riders of Justice worth giving consideration beyond an opening night film — the art of the hangout movie lives, after all.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.