Mads Mikkelsen is one of the greatest non-verbal actors in cinema history. That’s not to say he isn’t effective when he speaks — the argument can be made that he is the best Hannibal Lecter, and no one claims that if you don’t speak well — but when Mads is simply staring at someone or something, he conveys something that words cannot. This is what makes him perfect for a film like Riders of Justice.
Riders of Justice is … hard to summarize. Look, it’s on Hulu right now. Just check it out if you haven’t already. But if you’re stubborn, then here’s the best summary I can give you: After a soldier’s wife is killed in a seemingly random train accident, a team of mathematics and computer experts convince him the accident was actually a planned attack orchestrated by a motorcycle gang (the titular Riders of Justice) and together, they plot revenge against the biker gang.
I despise plot summaries (even my own) because they never do a film, pardon the pun, justice. Riders of Justice is one of the most unique, funny and surprising films I’ve ever seen that deals with grief, and a plot summary cannot convey that. And this unique take on grief is the perfect vehicle for Mikkelsen’s talents.
He plays Markus, a soldier who feels more at home on the battlefield than with his family. You can imagine that suddenly losing his wife is devastating enough for Markus, but now having to live a domestic life and deal with, or attempt to ignore, his own emotions and those of his daughter is a near impossibility. Mikkelsen is perfect for this because he has resting emotional turmoil face. The man always looks like he is in the middle of an internal struggle. Mikkelsen has always been a powerful non-verbal actor, and this film has numerous great moments in which he shuts things down with a simple stare. There’s a saying about how you’d be willing to listen to some actors read the phone book; with Mikkelsen, I would be happy to watch him silently read it.
But Mikkelsen is more than just a sad face; his versatility is on full display here, as well. He has plenty of darkly comic moments (the dinner with Markus’s daughter and her boyfriend comes to mind), and the violence of the film adds another element to his physical performance. He’s imposing, of course, but there’s also something in Markus’s eyes when violence becomes an option. He looks almost happy when a gun gets pointed at his face because he can finally deal with things using violence. And isn’t that what this movie says about grief in general for most people? We want to find a way to deal with grief that makes sense to us, whether that’s through calculations or snapping necks. Anything is better than accepting loss. And Mikkelsen conveys that just with his eyes.
Riders of Justice would certainly work if Markus stayed his violent self for the entire movie, but you grow to care about all of these characters so much that the film needs him to have an emotional awakening by the end. The moment when Markus finally breaks through is cathartic for the audience, too. It’s not just that it’s good for character development for him to change; it’s that we want this change for him. A part of that is in the writing, but the bigger part is Mikkelsen’s powerful performance.
Grief, Danish Style
Dealing with grief from loss is a common theme in film, but 2021 seemed to be an especially grief-heavy year, cinematically (and literally) speaking. The main films that come to mind are Riders of Justice, Pig, Drive My Car, and Mass. Of these, Pig is my favorite, but Riders is a close second. I think both Drive My Car and Mass are great films, but I didn’t personally enjoy them all that much. You might be, rightfully, thinking, “Not all films are meant to be ‘enjoyed.’ ” I agree, but I want to enjoy the films I watch, not be made miserable by them (depending on my mood). To be fair, both films offer hope, but the journey to get there was joyless for me.
Riders of Justice, on the other hand, does not wallow in misery; neither does Pig, but that’s for another article. Terrible things have happened to every main character in this film, but there are as many comedic as dramatic moments. I credit Denmark for this.
In America and many other cultures, grief is dealt with solemnly, and a general line of reasoning is that you should let people deal with things their own way. The Danish sensibility is a bit more straightforward. Characters are so blatant with each other that it comes across as humorous to me.
Either because of the current state of the world or just aging in general, I have been more focused on death lately. My thoughts turn to the rituals of death in my area, specifically funerals. Every time I’ve been part of the grieving family, I would get so sick of hearing, “If there’s anything you need, let me know.” At this point, it’s become a family joke that one of these days we’ll take someone up on the offer with a random request like, “Hey, thanks, can you get me some AAA batteries?” It’s all absurd to me because no one really knows what to do or say, and it starts to feel like an empty ritual to me.
I bring up the funeral stuff because there is a funeral in the film, and the daughter is particularly bothered by the priest’s eulogy. Markus, not being religious at all, dismisses it rather than trying to sugarcoat things. He ends up telling his daughter that her mother is “nothing now” and to go to sleep. Part of this is to show that Markus has no idea how to deal with his daughter’s grief or his own, for that matter. But what stuck out to me is that he spoke honestly rather than trying to say the “right” thing. Of course, being honest all the time isn’t a good idea — I think Liar Liar has proven this — but in this situation, it can be refreshing.
This isn’t to say I want people to come up to me in a moment of grief and tell me that my lost loved one is “nothing now,” but I would like to hear people just admit that they don’t know what to say instead of reciting a greeting card.
And Markus’s brutal honesty is not without merit. His daughter doesn’t come away comforted by his words, but it does spur her on to deal with things her own way. This is more a byproduct of his parenting than a true intention, but the result is the same, even if Markus just doesn’t want to really talk about what either of them is enduring.
This leads to the more comedic elements of the film, as characters start to treat Markus the way he treats his daughter — with brutal honesty. At the risk of being punched in the face (a threat on which Markus follows through), the supporting characters go right at Markus, telling him how he’s incorrectly dealing with his daughter and his own emotions. The violence in some of these moments is comical, but the blunt dialogue adds humor, too. It’s just surprising to see a hacker keep going after an emotionally stunted, violent soldier. This can be chalked up to the eccentric characters of the film, but it also feels very Danish.
Because of this, I enjoy how grief is dealt with in Riders of Justice. I don’t think I would ever want to get the Danish treatment; I’ll probably be fine with the greeting card sentiments until I’m the one being grieved. But it’s refreshing to see it. It makes a film about grief a fun, enlightening experience rather than a depressing slog, and we have Denmark to thank for that.
Random Thoughts / Favorite Quotes
The beginning reminds me of the beginning of A Serious Man, although this scene is much more directly related to the story while the one in A Serious Man is tied to it thematically.
All because a girl wanted a blue bike.
Markus as a dad: Your mother isn’t alone, sweetie. She’s nothing now. Sleep tight!
I love the running joke of Lennart really digging Markus’s barn.
Can’t say I disagree with the Mikkelsen method of grieving: chain-smoking and binge drinking … and cold-cocking his daughter’s boyfriend.
“I didn’t mean to hit him that hard.”
Do they not slice pizzas for you in Denmark? That pizza they show Emmanthaler to be let in is definitely unsliced.
“There is no fucking balls to match piss in Denmark!”
With cinematic universes and spinoff shows popping up all the time, why can’t we get a spinoff show following the adventures of Otto, Lennart and Emmanthaler?
“Everyone has been eager to see the barn.”
Eyes Wide Shut will always be my favorite alternative Christmas movie, but this one is a close second.
“How does a baker solve conflicts?”
“Thank you for saving me. And thank you for not fucking me in my ass.”
This unlikely group forms a surprisingly functional family unit, even if they are planning mass murder in the barn.
“There’s a centillion reasons. But they won’t help you.”
“This really sucks. What the hell did we ever do to you?”
The ending seems way too happy, but I’m OK with it. By the end of the film, I love these characters, and I want to see happiness in their lives since they’ve already experienced so much tragedy.