Who knows how it was forged, the ironclad bond between Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen and Mads Mikkelsen, star of countless sex dreams and recent Oscar-winner Another Round. Perhaps they buried a body together. Whatever the reason, we continue to reap the benefits as that actor, who has been central to all of Jensen’s movies (including his 2000 debut Flickering Lights), reunites with his pal/conspirator-in-corpse-disposal to deliver their fifth, and very possibly finest collaboration to date: the witty, weird and wantonly violent Riders of Justice.
Part of the attraction on Mikkelsen’s side has to be that Jensen, like other Danish directors such as Thomas Vinterberg, Susanne Bier and Nicolas Winding Refn, casts him in rather different roles than the ones he gets elsewhere. Hollywood looks at him and thinks: “Supervillain cardsharp who cries tears of blood!” or “Supervillain genius cannibal psychologist!” or “Supervillain sorcerer/whatever he is in Chaos Walking!” But his compatriots look at Mikkelsen and see a teacher or a street thug, a conflicted orphanage manager or a dim-bulb compulsive masturbator, which must be a nice change of speed.
Here, Jensen casts his star as a grieving widower struggling to reconnect with his daughter in the aftermath of his wife’s death, which is a technically accurate but extremely misleading summation of Riders of Justice. One could also describe Jensen’s last film, Men and Chicken (2015), as a touching ode to renewed family bonds — which is true but glosses over all the harelips and bestiality. The new film is about fatherhood and grief, but it’s also about control, causality, male fragility masked as strength, childhood trauma, the vacuum where God used to be in modern secular society and lots and lots of guns.
Mikkelsen, sporting a striking beard-and-buzzcut combo, plays Markus, the distant, ramrod-stiff soldier father of snub-nosed teenager Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeber). He’s on a tour of duty when a chain of seemingly random events — the theft of a bike, a car not starting, a phone call with bad news and a man chivalrously giving up his seat — leads to the death of his wife Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind) in a train explosion. Markus hurries home and tries, in his rigid and stentorian way, to parent his daughter through her shock, a process not much helped when he punches out her emo-sensitive do-gooder boyfriend Sirius (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt, also from Another Round).
All might continue in this vein, father and child growing steadily apart, Markus refusing Mathilde’s entreaties that they both get grief counseling and instead displacing his rage in random bursts onto a world outside his military sense of order. But then Otto (Jensen regular Nikolaj Lie Kaas) an evangelical statistician with a withered arm, shows up on his doorstep, babbling about how the fatal train crash wasn’t an accident. To him, statistics prove that it was a hit designed to kill another passenger. Specifically, a former gang member who was about to testify against his crew, the Riders of Justice. Otto’s particularly obsessed, because he was the man who gave his seat to Emma.
These wild theories are backed up by his brilliant but even more maladjusted besties, both of whom were fired from their R&D think-tank jobs on the same day he was. Lennart (Lars Brygmann) is a genial, shambling hacker who follows the paper trail of evidence linking the Riders to the train blast, and who has a tempestuous relationship with borderline Tourettic programmer Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro, another member of Jensen’s rep company). They identify the men they believe responsible for the blast, and Markus sets his mind, in the best Liam Neeson tradition, to killing them all.
Meanwhile, Mathilde gets suspicious of all these hilariously oddball men hanging out with her dad in their barn, so they invent the cover story that they are the therapists she has so dearly encouraged him to hire; Lennart, an abuse survivor who has burned through 25 shrinks in 40 years, particularly takes to the role. Along the way, they also rescue a sweetnatured Ukrainian rent boy called Bodashka (Gustav Lindh) from sex slavery and set him to work as an au pair, because that’s the sort of thing that might quite naturally happen in this skewed universe.
Such wild zigzags in tone — between bumbling physical comedy and lightly stinging satirical observation, between heartbreaking vulnerability and bursts of gleefully vicious, slickly choreographed violence — ought not to work at all. And yet they do, thanks to Jensen’s calm, slightly wry command of the story, and a cast that have all understood the assignment, even when their respective assignments are all quite different. The understated, deadpan delivery makes it possible for the film to be both a homage to the vendetta-Daddy genre exemplified by Taken and its ilk, and a complete subversion of its core philosophy: that a man can somehow rewrite the injustices of the world, especially those visited on his womenfolk, if he only has will enough.
But then the philosophy of Riders of Justice, if it has one, is that we should be wary of vengeance stories, and maybe of stories in general, with their tendency toward a neatness that life seldom displays. Preparing dinner one night, Bodashka tells a Ukrainian folk tale. The camera goes all warm on him. The music swells. He pauses for dramatic effect before delivering the sweet nugget of rueful wisdom it must surely contain — only it never comes and everyone looks away, embarrassed. The story has no point, which is the point.
It’s a noble mission to try to uncover the secret geometries of the universe, but we should distrust anyone who thinks they’ve found them, and Riders of Justice is certainly not going to pretend that it has. Instead it’s content to give us the two types of visceral, visual pleasure: a granite-faced Mads Mikkelsen snapping a man’s neck and dropping his body like so much dirty laundry; and a marginally less granite-faced Mads Mikkelsen in a Christmas jumper listening to an overweight friend play Little Drummer Boy on the French horn. After that it imparts only this much wisdom: Life is messy, and there’s no way round the rough bits, only through. Oh, and maybe one other thing: Men! Listen to your teenage daughters. It’s just possible they might teach you something you don’t even know you don’t know.