Best of 2021: Dora Endre’s list of movies III.

~ a series by Dora Endre // III. Riders of Justice, directed by Anders Thomas Jensen ~

Times have changed, and the “old normal” seems to be part of a different galaxy in more than one way. The movie industry is no exception.

The pandemic redrew the demarcation lines, so to speak. New rules and regulations, higher cost and risk factors, as well as ways of release came into play. Many of this year’s movies have gone straight to VOD or streaming. In the very last weeks of this year, high-profile blockbusters and mainstream movies are hitting theatres from “The House of Gucci” (Ridley Scott) to “West Side Story” (Steven Spielberg). Hollywood giants and their aspirations for the award season will soon be in the spotlight.

Now that the new year has started, I hereby present my choices for the best movies of 2021. Movies that might not have their titles flashing red on the radar but bear with complex stories that are worth to emerge in. What is it that they all share? A sharp focus on the importance of human contact, and a deep appreciation of all human rapports we have in our lives. Hug your loved ones now that it is possible, as long as it is possible.

  1. Riders of Justice (Denmark)

“I think people with problems should stand together.
Like fat people, so they look less thick when they are together.
You also have some things you need to learn to live with.”

Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), a military officer, is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan when receives word that his wife, Emma (Anene Birgitte Lind) died in an apparent train explosion. Thus Markus returns home to try and parent his estranged daughter. His daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) looks for answers, struggles to understand why her mother had to die, while Markus, as a man of action and razor sharp rationality, wants no answers. He shuts his emotions off and knows not how to mourn. He is at complete loss.

One night two peculiar men show up at his house: Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) a mathematician who was a passenger on the same train car Markus’s wife and gave up his seat to her only moments before the accident, and Otto’s friend and colleague Lennart (Lars Brygmann), an oddball hacker. They claim that they are convinced the wreck was no accident but an assassination.

Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen (Adam’s Apples, Men & Chicken) is known to evoke empathy and sympathy even when it comes to the most unbearable characters. Markus is a stone cold soldier, he avoids real human contact and suppresses all his emotions. He sets out on a revenge mission against the gang responsible for his wife’s death, he is a man of violence. As he and his newly formed platoon, consisting of weird, anti-fighter scientists, sink deep into aggression and blood, Markus steadily drifts further and further away from his daughter. He sets his focus on the wrong thing.

Anders Thomas Jensen made a movie that is everything but what it seems. It aims to mess you over, and trust me, it will. He tells a story of revenge but not one that you would expect. He definitely asks his viewers questions about far-right gangs, terrorism and the righteousness of violence, the principle of “an eye for an eye”. But that is only the surface. Jensen constructs a non-traditional, deeply emotional, existentialist tale. He takes coincidences and probability, mathematics as the basis of his plot. Science instigates the story and permeates the movie. (Interestingly enough science and philosophy was the basis for last year’s Danish hit Another Round). People have a tendency to try to make sense of bad things, find the reason why those occurred, why now, why to them. We, as humans, always try to understand the incomprehensible.

Jensen has an absurdist, dark sense of humor, and he showcases us with a number of tragic, troubled yet loving characters. Every one of them has their personal train wrecks and all struggle to not spread their hurt by hurting the ones closest to them. All characters are wounded. Some were abused, some traumatized, some abandoned. They are everything but healthy yet they are unable to face their inner realities and demons.

Jensen made a movie with a variety of tones. He goes from poignant vulnerability to sweaty masculine violence, from effortless physical comedy to pitch black social commentary and grotesque humor. Sometimes things get a little imbalanced. Jokes slip in when five extra seconds of revealed vulnerabilities and the landing of a heart-breaking sentence could have been allowed to linger around a bit more. Nevertheless, it is a wild game of ping-pong in tone and none of it takes away from the virtue of Jensen’s achievement. Riders of Justice is an exhilarating ride of many emotions, action packed yet moving.

Jensen is assisted by a remarkable cast, many of whom are his frequent collaborators. Mikkelsen is the most notable, who yet again proves he is much more than just a pretty face. He is great at handling the comedy and the gravitas, and is always willing to go the extra mile where not all actors are driven enough to go. (See the movie and you will see. No, this time it is not a drunken dance.) When it comes to the color palette, and this is a subjective take on the red-blue-yellow combination that runs through the entire movie, to me sometimes this choice becomes distracting. It seemed a notch too artificial, too Hollywood-esque for a sensitive story like this. When it comes to Danish topoi, Jensen serves us with them all, we get traditional songs, questions about religion and faith, as well as its counterbalancing with science and cold-hearted rationalities.

It is a brilliant, sweet-natured movie about the need to accept our fate, embrace our weaknesses and heal together through the power of unity.

Where to watch: it is currently in theatres and available on Vudu, Hulu and Prime Video.

Come back tomorrow for the next part! Here you can read Part I and Part II.

Dora Endre is a New York based Hungarian film and theatre artist with an extensive educational background (media, international communications, filmmaking, acting, editing). For the past four years she was lucky enough to collaborate with other creatives on a number of short movies, commercials, music videos, musicals, dance and off-Broadway shows. She loves to wear many hats but primarily works as a director. She also loves guacamole.