The familiar vengeance payback genre has some goofy and entirely welcome top-spin applied to it in Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders Of Justice. The Danish film also features a version of Mads Mikkelsen — currently at a career peak — that we’ve never seen before, with his handsome face hidden behind an Ozark-style full beard as a tough army officer ill-prepared to console his bereft teenaged daughter in the wake of her mother’s violent death.
Writer-director Jensen knows Mikkelsen well, having written previous films for the actor including The Salvation, After The Wedding and Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself. Jensen has also enjoyed good fortune at the Oscars — directing 1998 Best Short Subject winner, Election Night; as co-writer of the 2009 winner in the same category, The New Tenants; and as screenwriter of Suzanne Bier’s 2011 Best Foreign Language Film laureate, In A Better World.
At the outset, Riders Of Justice, which Magnet Releasing currently has in U.S. cinemas and which premieres there on-demand today ahead of its UK release in July via Vertigo, has a determinedly mainstream feel. While Mikkelsen’s Markus is tied down on duty in Afghanistan, his wife Emma and only child, the teenaged Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), carry on with life, which on this day has been disrupted by the theft of Mathilde’s bicycle. On the crowded metro, a man gives up his seat so Emma can have it; moments later, a terrible accident kills 11 people, including Emma. Other victims include a lawyer and his client, the latter a former outlaw gang member who was about to testify against the criminal group’s leader.
Jensen plays his wild card almost at once with the introduction of some oddball characters who set the unexpectedly off-beat tone for the rest of the film. First among equals is statistician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kass), a seriously bearded but never entirely convincing practitioner of “probability calculation” who quickly concludes that the subway incident was not an accident at all, rather, a staged killing of a key witness in a gang-related homicide, along with his lawyer.
Playing Alphonse to Otto’s Gaston is Lennart (Lars Brygmann), a scruffy, irrepressible snoop as annoying as he is occasionally helpful. These two insinuate themselves into the lives of the grieving Mathilde and the newly arrived Markus, who one imagines might by now have figured out how to deal with grieving survivors. To the contrary, he’s an emotional basket case at a virtual loss for words; you get the sense that he’s seen so much death and grief that his only instinct is to block it out and carry on.
Jensen’s bold stroke here is to play up the nutty character comedy to the point that it virtually dominates the tragedy of the situation. With the distraught Mathilde receiving no effective support from her father, it’s left to the goofy outsiders to lead the way, which they do with often appalling — and therefore amusing — rudeness and gall.
The group is shortly joined by Emmanthaler (Nicolas Bro), a seriously overweight ultra-geek, making for a group one would not imagine is equipped to address the two major matters at hand — the mother’s murder, if that is, in fact, what it was, and the well-being of young Mathilde and her father, who can’t very well help himself, much less others.
So the stage is set, dominated by three stooges and one killing machine. It’s a weird combination, to say the least, and Jensen has the guts and skill to keep it all moving even if the dramatic dots are not connected in ways that seem particularly convincing. As the three outsiders positively brim with vibrant eccentricity, Markus sinks further into his own psychological and emotional muck, which keeps the character frustratingly one-dimensional. When he does at last emerge, it’s in a rather obvious way, and with fairly predictable dramatic results.
All the same, the tenor of the film is so unusual and eccentric that one is inclined to give its shortcomings a pass. The characters here are all seriously damaged, with their own very difficult issues; Mathilde spends a great amount of time trying to figure out all the ordinary circumstances and events contributed to her mother’s death. There are bizarre and sometimes awkward bumps along the way, but the way Jensen has bent his narrative to serve deeply serio-comic purposes reveals a bold and adventurous storytelling confidence.