Riders of Justice is showing in selected cinemas and on-demand from 23rd July.
Revenge is a dish best served in many ways. Some spend years crafting it, while others prefer to strike while the iron is hot. It’s an oft-explored topic for action; just look at John Wick, Nobody and Kill Bill, revenge is rarely bloodless, and it’s always cataclysmic. These films emphasise the aesthetic value of revenge. Yet the human dimension of what revenge does to those who seek it is far less explored. It’s clear that Anders Thomas Jensen aims to put that right.
Jensen’s mindful revenge thriller follows Mads Mikkelsen’s Markus, forced to return home after his wife is killed in a train accident. Naturally, Markus’ daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) is broken, having been with her mother at the time. While Mathilde’s emotional wounds bleed from her heart, Markus is emotionally catatonic and unavailable. It’s clear that Mathilde’s mother was the lynchpin of their family, and her absence has caused the dynamic to collapse in on itself. Mathilde cannot connect with her father, and her father doesn’t know Mathilde – it’s as though grief has made strangers of the two. Mads’ performance of Markus is understated, barely moving, his eyes the only portal to his soul. His immovable state of emotional paralysis reflects the devastating power that grief can wield, as Markus becomes a ghost both to his own daughter and to us. Then we meet Otto, and things shift.
Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) operate as a remarkably curious unit throughout Riders of Justice. Initially, they present Markus with the opportunity for revenge through Otto’s statistical analysis of the accident combined with his eyewitness testimony of a suspicious character. Jensen imbues this strong thematic sense of coincidence and probability into his relationships in Riders, and it always comes back to trauma. What appears to be an action comedy on the surface is, in fact, a trojan horse for a mindful revenge tragedy, infiltrating the avenues of coping with one’s grief.
Despite this being primed as an action thriller, Markus’ quest for violent vengeance feels unjustified. Even when Markus gets his immediate revenge, he regards it as a mistake. Jensen seems to be deliberately critiquing the aesthetical value of Markus’ revenge narrative because while it may be great for us, it’s terrible for Mathilde – and it’s even worse for himself. The moral quandaries that Jensen probes throughout Riders feels reminiscent of Villenueve’s Prisoners and the journey of Jackman’s Keller Dover. Both Dover and Markus resort to shocking, violent measures in order to achieve what they believe to be the greater good. With both, what begins as a seemingly black-and-white morality gives way to an increasingly dark ambiguity that threatens to restructure our heroes as no better than the villains they hunt. Gradually, it becomes clear that perhaps Markus isn’t doing this merely for revenge – it’s possibly all he knows he can do. Imprisoned by overpowering grief, he’s compelled to obtain control, and to a soldier, that’s through absolute dominance through violence.
As Markus’ quest continues, it’s evident that there is good to be found in his tunnel-vision for vengeance, as he inadvertently gives purpose to Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler, as well as saving a life or two. However, what’s being constructed is a support network of like-minded individuals stricken with their own personal traumas, coming together and collectively healing. Jensen’s approach to grief is that it cannot be tackled nor dominated individually. That can only bring further grief and potentially compel you toward your own self-destruction. It’s only through opening yourself up to vulnerability and the collective compassion of loved ones and friends that you can truly heal this invisible yet perpetual wound.
Riders of Justice offers us the blood-pumping beats of an action thriller but ensures there’s a beating heart of emotion at the core. By gradually critiquing Markus’ unstoppable thirst for revenge, even to the point of up-ending his whole quest, Anders Thomas Jensen demonstrates a thoughtfulness to the destructibility of grief upon the human condition. There isn’t a form of revenge that is bloodless nor toothless, but almost certainly, it will always lead back to one’s own destruction. The only way to rebuild is with the help of others. That’s what Riders of Justice tells us.