IFFR 2021: 'Riders of Justice' from Denmark is Extra Dark & Complex
by Alex Billington
February 17, 2021
Screened as a selection of the virtual 2021 Rotterdam Film Festival. There is always room for more dark comedies in the world of cinema. Laughter makes everything better. The latest film from Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen is yet another very dark comedy, which is precisely his forte as a filmmaker. He's written dozens of screenplays with complex characters, and directed a handful of films previously that also involve complex dynamics between good and bad people. He gracefully and gleefully explores that gray area inbetween good and bad, and takes us on the journey into their experiences. Riders of Justice (originally Retfærdighedens Ryttere in Danish) is his latest film, both written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, and it's so astoundingly dark and strangely twisted and wickedly hilarious. I loved it through and through.
The entire premise of the film is exactly what makes it so dark and twisted to begin with. Nikolaj Lie Kaas stars as Otto, a man who survives a deadly train accident that leaves a number of other people dead. One of them is the wife of Markus, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who returns to Denmark from his duties as a high ranking solider in the Middle East to take care of his daughter and his wife's affairs. Otto appears at his home one day and tells him that he thinks the accident was no accident - it was a planned attack designed to kill a former biker gang member who was about to testify in court and reveal the truth about his cohorts. They wanted to get rid of him. So Markus joins with Otto, and a few of his kooky friends, to figure out who was behind the attack. The police don't care much about their evidence, so their goal at the start is justice, but it soon devolves into revenge as they begin to investigate on their own, taking them to some dark places.
This film is such a dark, dark, extra super pitch black dark comedy – like tumbling down a coal mine dark. This filmmaker – Anders Thomas Jensen – does that kind of super dark Scandinavian comedy better than pretty much anyone else. Start with the always-incredible Mads Mikkelsen out for revenge, and plug in three awkward Danish nerds trying to take out some bad guys. And you've got this work of Danish cinematic art. Everything about it so strange yet so brilliant with such incredibly violent, dark humor. I can't even believe it's this entertaining but it is. That's certainly not easy to pull off. Add in the intricate complexity of all of the characters, the flaws and issues and dilemmas that each one of them is working on, because that's what it's like in real life. We're all complex, not simple, we make mistakes. It is just great filmmaking in every sense.
What makes the film extra dark is the reveals and discoveries as the story plays out. Oh wait, this isn't what you think it is, but okay, let's keep going. You're rooting for these guys to successfully find and get rid of the assholes, but are they doing the right thing? Maybe they are? Maybe there is something worthwhile coming from their "work" even if it isn't getting justice the professional and proper way. And ultimately that's what the film plays around with. There's an odd set of bookends that I couldn't quite figure out that involve this strange story of a little girl and her bicycle at Christmastime. Obviously there is a point to these scenes, but how do they connect with the rest of the story being told? It could mean nothing - all the randomness and coincidences of life. Or maybe they offer something more to think about? My theory is - maybe there is some good in what the guys are doing, even if it isn't ultimately solving a crime or putting bad people behind bars.
Mads' beard in Riders of Justice is one of my all-time favorite film beards. I could write an entire review just about his beard and how perfectly crafted and grizzled it is. But I'll stay on topic this time. Riders of Justice is a wholly entertaining dark comedy, odd and extreme at times, complex and nuanced as well, necessarily violent but not to a fault, and ultimately satisfying in its gritty storytelling. The eclectic mix of three geeky, lonely Danish dudes with a badass Mads Mikkelsen is so unexpected but delightful. Perhaps even the title is a hint that there's more to justice than simply connecting the dots and arresting the perpetrators. There's other things that can make a difference, and even if we stumble our way around the evidence, we can clean up the streets anyway. Plus, as that saying goes, the "real treasure was the friends we made along the way."