Riders of Justice is showing in selected cinemas and on-demand from 23rd July.
For some, revenge is a dish best served cold; years in the making. While for others, revenge is only satisfying if delivered while the iron is hot for that maximum surge of vengeance through one’s veins. It’s an oft-explored topic in the action genre; John Wick, Nobody and Kill Bill all examples of its on-screen diversity. In most films, revenge is rarely bloodless and is always cataclysmic, emphasising the aesthetic value of revenge over the human dimension. However, in many movies, this leaves one question unanswered, what is revenge doing to the seeker? It’s clear that Anders Thomas Jensen has noticed that with his new film Riders of Justice.
Jensen’s mindful revenge thriller follows Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) on his forced return home after the death of his wife in a train accident. His daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), broken, having been with her mother at the time. But, while Mathilde’s emotional wounds bleed from her heart, Markus remains emotionally catatonic and unavailable.
It’s immediately apparent that Mathilde’s mother was the lynchpin of the family; her absence, causing the family unit to collapse. Mathilde cannot connect with her father, and her father does not know Mathilde – it’s as though grief has made strangers of the two. Mads’ performance as Markus is often understated, frequently barely moving his eyes while never allowing for any recognisable emotion. His immovable state of emotional paralysis, reflecting the devastating power grief can wield. Here, Markus is a ghost both to his daughter and us. But, it is not long before we meet Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler, and things begin to change.
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 his wife’s accident. While at the same time combining this with an eye-witness testimony of a suspicious character. Jensen imbues this strong thematic sense of coincidence and probability into each relationship in Riders while always returning to the trauma at the film’s heart. For example, Mathilde’s event sequencing provides a form of coping. While at the same time, Emmenthaler’s facial recognition percentages help facilitate Markus’ revenge. In essence, what appears to be an action-comedy on the surface is, in fact, a trojan horse for a mindful revenge tragedy.
READ MORE: THE COLUMNIST
Despite being primed as an action thriller, Markus’ quest for violent vengeance ultimately feels unjustified. Here, Jensen brings a self-reflexive invocation as we fall further through this jet black rabbit hole of revenge; bodies piled along the way. 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. Jensen plays with the fact that while Markus’ actions may be great for the audience, they are, in fact, destructive for both his daughter and himself.
The moral quandaries that Jensen probes throughout Riders feel reminiscent of Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Jackman’s Keller Dover. Both Dover and Markus resort to shocking, violent measures to achieve what they believe to be the greater good. With both, what begins as black-and-white morality gives way to an increasingly dark ambiguity. The result of which threatens to restructure our heroes into being no better than the villains they hunt. Gradually, it becomes clear that Markus isn’t doing this merely for revenge – it’s possibly all he knows. His life, the captive of his overwhelming grief, his only option to obtain control by being a soldier. The result, absolute dominance through violence.
READ MORE FROM SABASTIAN ASTLEY
As Markus’ quest continues, it’s evident that there is good to be found in his tunnel vision of vengeance. Inadvertently, giving purpose to Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler and saving a life or two in the process. This ultimately creates a support network of like-minded individuals stricken by trauma, coming together for collective healing. Here, Jensen’s approach to grief cannot be tackled, nor dominated, individually. The individual route bringing further distress while potentially propelling you toward your self-destruction. In Jensen’s world, it is only through opening yourself to vulnerability and collective compassion from a network of loved ones and friends that the individual can genuinely mend this invisible yet perpetual wound.
Riders of Justice smartly offers us a blood-pumping action thriller with an emotional heart. The narrative journey gradually critiquing Markus’ unstoppable thirst for revenge, even to the point of up-ending his whole quest. Here, Anders Thomas Jensen demonstrates a thoughtfulness on the destructibility of grief upon the human condition. How it can ravage us and leave us a husk of our former selves, trapped in routines we repeat to gain a semblance of control. There isn’t a form of revenge that is bloodless or toothless, but it will almost certainly lead back to one’s own destruction. The only way to truly recover and rebuild is with the help of others.