Riders of Justice: Last Train, by David Bax
Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice opens with Christmas music in a way that you’d be forgiven for regarding with suspicion. Jensen made his name with 2003’s The Green Butchers, a cannibalism comedy that’s decent but also has a smarmy postmodernism that’s very of its era. The events that open Riders of Justice, juxtaposed with that cheery music, suggest we’re in for another self-consciously dark comedy past its sell-by date. But when the film begins to allow us to feel the weight of those inciting incidents, it becomes clear that Jensen has matured. And the movie’s still very funny, to boot.
When a subway accident results in a woman’s death, her surviving husband, Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), and teenage daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), are forced to address the emotional gulf between them. A short time later, they are visited by Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a statistician who survived the train collision and is convinced it was no accident. Markus the grieving military lifer doesn’t take much convincing before he commits to using his particular set of skills to track down and punish those responsible.
Otto’s background in probability gives Jensen the excuse he needs to get cutesy in the early going. In the way of The Butterfly Effect or Laurent Firode’s Happenstance, we watch as a young girl’s request for a blue bicycle for Christmas sets off a chain of events that puts Mathilde’s mother in the exact train seat she’d need to be in to be killed in the crash. It’s a bit ostentatious and self-satisfied but it also provides a counterpoint to Otto’s worldview, in which everything can be explained with numbers.
He’s wrong, of course, but we soon see how he’s just another person–one of many such characters in the film, actually–whose values and philosophy of life were formed by tragedy and trauma. That’s why it’s surprisingly satisfying when Riders of Justice takes a sudden turn into Man on Fire territory, daring to raise the possibility of violence as therapy, revenge as catharsis, justice as a cleansing force.
Just as quickly, though, Riders of Justice shifts gears again. One second, you feel justified in cheering the snapping of a bad guy’s neck. The next, you’re in anguish over the damage done to the already threadbare emotional well-being of the men who did it. Jensen employs a cool, deep color scheme and plenty of viscerally framed shots of guns firing or not firing; in other words, he’s made a thriller. Except, like Hans Petter Moland (who directed In Order of Disappearance and its American remake, Cold Pursuit), he aims to undercut those thrills, to use the genre’s own aesthetics against it, guiding us to reflect on just how not cool these broken crusaders are.
Mikkelsen is obviously the big name here to American audiences but the film is an ensemble and the rest of the cast, who I surmise are pretty familiar to Danish viewers, are just as talented. Kaas and Mikkelsen, the green butchers themselves, have appeared in every one of Jensen’s films. Meanwhile, Lars Brygmann and Nicolas Bro captivate as Otto’s colleagues, each suffering in his own way. And Gadeberg along with Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt and Gustav Lindh play the younger generation on whom the sins of the father may yet not pay a visit. Riders of Justice entices with its tale of righteous violence but is more winning in its depiction of collective trust and healing.