Is a deadly train crash an accident or murder?

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Riders of Justice
opens may 21

4.5 out of 5

Considering the decimation of the Saskatchewan film industry due to insufficient provincial tax incentives (heck, even Alberta is boosting its support), one can’t help but look abroad in awe.

Take Denmark, for example. It’s a country of five million people that’s 1/12 the size of Saskatchewan butDenmark has built a stunning film production system, subsidized by government through the Danish Film Institute.

The approach has translated in 39 Oscar nominations and 13 victories, and the emergence of talents like Lars Von Trier, Nicolas Winding Refn, Susanne Bier and recent Academy Award winner Thomas Vinterberg. Denmark’s film industry also generates millions of dollars in revenue and its cultural impact is immeasurable.

Sure, the comparison is unfair but the gap is greater than it needs to be.

Writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen is a product of this environment. While not a household name like some of his peers, many of his movies have crossed the Atlantic both in their original form (Men & Chicken, In a Better World) or as remakes (Brothers, After the Wedding). He also wrote The Dark Tower’s screenplay, but don’t hold it against him.

Riders of Justice could be his best movie so far. It combines Thomas Jensen’s offbeat sense of humor with unsettling levels of violence and none of it feels out of place (think Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite). His draws complex characters with a few simple strokes.

The movie opens with a Rube Goldbergesque chain of events that ends with a train crash and the death of several passengers. One of the people to emerge from the wreckage is Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Angels & Demons), a mathematician with limited people skills and a serious case of survivor’s guilt. Otto suspects foul play: one of the casualties was a skinhead set to testify against his crew, and he calculates sabotage is far more probable than an unfortunate train-parking accident.

Ignored by the police, Otto recruits two other data nerds and the husband of one of the victims, Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), a soldier on leave from the war in Afghanistan. Shellshocked, Markus copes by abusing alcohol and expressing himself through violence. Considering how mismatched they are against the gang they hold responsible for the accident, Markus’ barely repressed anger could come in handy.

Riders of Justice may sound like a hastily put together Roger Corman-style revenge movie, but it’s really about chance and survivor’s guilt. As extreme as the movie may appear, it never stops being relatable. Who among us hasn’t tried to determine causality by retracing our steps ad infinitum? According to the film, it’s a losing game.

A major character in Riders is Markus’ daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). More in tune with her feelings than her dad, she’s not only haunted by what caused the wreck, but by God’s role in the events that killed her mother (realizing that the platitude “everything happens for a reason” doesn’t help anything can be devastating). The resolution of this storyline is a good example of Danish cinema at its most daring, and why an American remake is unlikely.

It may not give that impression, but Riders of Justice can be extremely funny: Retaliation can be messy, especially for three people completely unsuited to bloodshed. There’s a lot to unpack after the credits but the ride is fun.