MIFF ’21: Riders of Justice Subverts the Revenge Thriller for a Truly Unique Experience

When tragedy strikes, our instinct is to seek out how something so monstrous could happen. We try to understand the actions that led to this point, a chain of causality that will answer what, or who, is responsible. This is at the heart of Anders Thomas Jensen’s new film Riders of Justice. Working with frequent collaborators Nikolaj Lie Kaas and the extraordinary Mads Mikkelson, this revenge thriller cleverly deconstructs the genre while weaving Jensen’s penchant for pitch-black humour that we’ve seen in his previous films Men & Chicken and Adam’s Apple.

After his wife is tragically killed, Mikkelson’s still deployed soldier Markus returns home to his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), as they come to terms with their loss. Markus wants to move past the tragedy, seemingly accepting the freak nature of the accident, much to the dismay of his daughter who is in denial, wanting to believe it to be an of act of god. Markus’s mind is quickly changed however, when statistician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) shows up at his door and tells Markus exactly what he wants to hear; that there is a person responsible for his wife’s death.

In most revenge thrillers, the target of vengeance is almost always a gang leader or secret cabal that messed with the wrong man’s family, like notable revenge films Taken and Death Wish, and on the surface Riders of Justice is no different with the titular biker gang Riders of Justice. What separates this film from the others in the genre however, is the lack of focus given to the characters we should be viewing as villains, the targets of Markus’s vengeance. By focusing solely on Markus and his oddball group of friends, Jensen is telling us these villains are merely surrogates for these men as they deal with their grief, guilt, and loss of control. 

Riders of Justice also subverts the revenge genre by focusing heavily on the emotion toll of the central characters actions. A staple of the revenge thriller is to quickly establish why the only action the protagonist can take is to go on a no holds barred, guilt-free rampage through the city, as we revel in the carnage catharsis alongside our hero. What Riders of Justice achieves through grounding the narrative in Markus’ home life, especially his relationship with violence through his life as a soldier, as well as his daughter’s relationship with his violence, is that we have to decide for ourselves whether the feeling we are left with is one of catharsis or sadness at the path taken by our heroes as they tear through the Riders of Justice.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas (left to right), Lars Brygmann, and Mads Mikkelson in Riders of Justice

This is a difficult film to categorise and that is evident through the trailers and marketing of the film, which focuses around either the black humour or the Taken-esque plot, but what makes this film truly singular is its pathos and sadness, and how it attempts to balance all these elements while maintaining the humanity at its core.

None of this would be possible without the driving force of Mikkelson who, even in his most restrained moments, is a comet oftentimes at risk of overshadowing the rest of the cast and the film as a whole. Jensen’s crucial writing decision to give all of his dark humour dialogue to the characters surrounding Markus is an important one, as it allows him to simmer under the surface until he is ready to blow, without undercutting his character’s nature by joking at the situation they find themselves in.

It’s impossible not to compare the film to the Oscar-winning film Another Round with its connection to Mikkelson, Danish cinema, and their close releases. Both films are centred around a certain type of middle-aged male pathos and sadness, with unique but similar feelings of estrangement with the world around them. Both films are similar in their use of academic reasoning in an attempt to explain the feelings they are having. In Another Round, the high-school teachers seek to explain the emptiness they feel as being a result of their blood alcohol level not being high enough, while in Riders of Justice, Otto seeks to explain away the guilt he is feeling for this tragedy by proving the sheer impossibility of the events occurring purely through chance.

Mikkelson’s performances in both films are wildly different and truly displays his versatility as an actor and what separates him as one of the best in the business. He is a must-see in any project.

Riders of Justice is streaming on MIFF Play until August 22.