Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen — Screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen.
It is quite extraordinary that in a year like 2020, which has seen a global pandemic severely damage the film industry and movie theaters all around the world, somehow the Danish film industry has thrived. This year has produced several event films, so to speak, in my home country. It all began with Mikkel Nørgaard’s Klovn: The Final, which is a continuation of arguably Denmark’s most popular comedy series of the last two decades. Then, not too long ago, Thomas Vinterberg’s near-masterpiece Druk was released to rave reviews, and it has almost single-handedly revived Danish movie theaters. Now, this week, Anders Thomas Jensen’s black comedy Retfærdighedens Ryttere has been released in Denmark. It is strange to say this, but, in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been a remarkably strong year for the Danish film industry.
In Anders Thomas Jensen’s Retfærdighedens Ryttere (international title: Riders of Justice), an emotionally unavailable Danish soldier, Markus (played by Mads Mikkelsen), is sent home from an overseas military base when his wife dies in a catastrophic train accident. His daughter, Mathilde (played by Andrea Heick Gadeberg), was with her on the train but survived, and she, like Markus, now has to deal with her grief in her own personal way. However, not everyone is convinced that this was just an accident. So, one day, Otto (played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Lennart (played by Lars Brygmann), two eccentric statisticians, show up at Markus’ home to tell him about their conspiracy theory. They believe that the accident was really a premeditated murder of someone on the train. The statisticians are quickly able to convince the grieving military man, who now becomes adamant that he must pursue retribution.
Anders Thomas Jensen is a prolific Danish screenwriter. He started out with a series of short films, which also led to his Oscar-win for 1998’s Valgaften, but, outside of Denmark, he is probably best known for the fact that he apparently co-wrote the screenplay for Nikolaj Arcel’s not-so-successful The Dark Tower. But, in his home country, he is regarded as one of Denmark’s best screenwriters. As a writer-director, he has crafted some of Denmark’s most beloved black comedies, such as Blinkende Lygter, De Grønne Slagtere, and Adam’s Æbler, which are all highly regarded for their rewatch-ability, their instantly quotable lines, and their sometimes absurdist humor. However, when Jensen isn’t in the director’s chair and is only credited as screenwriter or story consultant, he has had a hand in creating several mature and serious films such as Susanne Bier’s Efter Brylluppet or the Oscar-winning Hævnen.
Interestingly, Jensen’s latest film, Retfærdighedens Ryttere, feels almost like a marriage of Jensen’s work on his own and the projects that he has collaborated on with other directors. What I am trying to say is that while Anders Thomas Jensen’s film, like his previous feature-length films as a director, is still extremely amusing, Retfærdighedens Ryttere, at the same time, feels more mature and serious — and is more moving — than his previous films as a director. Whereas Mænd & Høns, Adam’s Æbler, and De Grønne Slagtere can feel like films from another more absurdist world, Retfærdighedens Ryttere feels almost true to life even in its most hilarious moments.
Retfærdighedens Ryttere is a film about the dark periods in life that may lead you to question the meaning of life and your place in it. It is a film about coincidences and meaning. It is a film about trying to make sense of things while you are mourning and vulnerable. For the main character, there is this sense of wanting to hold onto some form of redemption or retaliation, even though it may be futile. In general, it is a film about desperately looking for a connection — a link or a reason — so much so that you lose sight of what is important in life.
Jensen communicates these themes very well, and somehow he still manages to make room for his almost absurdist black comedy without it ever hindering the film’s emotional impact. Retfærdighedens Ryttere, like Jensen’s previous films, is instantly quotable and undeniably funny. This is also a film that, for reasons that will be obvious when you see the film, feels destined to be watched on repeat in Danish homes around Christmas time. It is definitely a side-splitting crowdpleaser, and I actually had tears of laughter in my eyes during certain scenes. This is in large part due to Lars Brygmann’s scene-stealing performance as Lennart, whose confidence and personality made me laugh almost every time he opened his mouth (though I have to say, I do wish he made fewer ‘fat jokes’.), and Nicolas Bro’s performance as Emmenthaler, a bullied and foul-mouthed facial recognition-expert with a temper.
I think it is important to note that while basically all of the main characters participate in the film’s comedy, they have also all lost something or someone. They are broken people, and I think this is an aspect that will be easy for audiences to really get along with. You also, for the most part, end up really enjoying these people’s company. I’ve already mentioned Nicolas Bro’s performance, as well as how Brygmann basically steals scenes — or, possibly, even the movie — but, nevertheless, I do still think this is a very strong ensemble cast from top-to-bottom. Relative newcomer Andrea Heick Gadeberg (Ser Du Månen, Daniel?) does a phenomenal job of holding her own in her many pivotal scenes with some of Denmark’s very best actors, and the Swedish rising star Gustav Lindh (Dronningen) also gives a memorable supporting performance.
Mads Mikkelsen is obviously the film’s biggest star, but here, unlike most of his performances in Anders Thomas Jensen’s films, Mikkelsen’s character is not very eccentric. He is essentially playing an emotionally unavailable character who is about to explode. He is much more toned down than his castmates. He does, however, have scenes where he really gets to exercise his talent both with skillful deadpan line-delivery and a release of anger and sorrow that sometimes made me think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher. Similarly, Nikolaj Lie Kaas’ character is not as eccentric or memorable as Brygmann and Nicolas Bro’s characters are, but he eventually really shines when he delivers what is probably the film’s very best monologue towards the end of the film.
This is Anders Thomas Jensen’s fifth feature-length film as a director, and, although it almost feels blasphemous to write this due to the extraordinary popularity of his previous films, Retfærdighedens Ryttere may be the very best film in his oeuvre. The Danish writer-director deserves a lot of praise for being able to balance his trademark brand of black comedy with this genuinely affecting story this well. It is easy to connect with, exceptionally amusing and entertaining, very quotable, and, like most of his films, it is sure to become a modern classic in Denmark before you know it.
9 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.