A soldier, a statistician, and a sex worker walk into a barn.
This is the setup for the 2020 Danish action-comedy Christmas movie, Riders of Justice, directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, which uses ‘comedy’ in typically loose Scandinavian fashion and ‘Christmas’ in equally irreverent ways.
Over a span of months, between screenings of long-delayed blockbusters and long-awaited arthouse darlings, I’ve convinced and/or dragged several friends to see Riders. Many expressed surprise that this was the movie I insisted on: a film full of middle-aged straight white dudes exchanging blows and man-pain, one of the few films which spanned festival screenings, and, months later, popped up to fill the usual dearth of holiday films in Australian cinemas.
The more I see it, the more I understand how this oddball philosophical comedy—which uses bike theft as a butterfly wing flap to kickstart its convoluted plot, fridges one of its two named women in the first 10 minutes, and turns a loose Star of Bethlehem reference into a filthy sex joke casually delivered over casserole—served as a perfect balm for my weird, terrible year.
Riders of Justice is bookended by a white-bearded, Santa-evoking grandfather and his granddaughter shopping for a Christmas present. They make a purchase with a man, who makes a phone call to thieves, who troll snowy streets looking for just the right bikes to steal. When I saw those black-masked pros in a white van steal a beloved two-wheeler, it was as though Jensen had ripped my nightmare from my brain, lit it more cinematically, and projected it onto my wall.
Whatever else happens: if those fuckers get punished, I’ll be happy.
Rewind the film to the start and my life to six Christmases ago, when I first reserved a special place in hell and my heart for bike thieves.
A little before Christmas, my pride and joy and sole mode of transportation, on which I’d just spent $150 to replace a cracked crankshaft and worn tires, was stolen. Someone witnessed a professional—unbothered by the heavy U-lock, broad daylight, and main street location—powertooling it free and tossing it into a stereotypical white van with a getaway driver. The witness reported their sightings to me and to the police, who shrugged. End of scene.
Seeing Riders of Justice open with a similar theft, and knowing Mads Mikkelsen was going to unleash his wonderful wrath, I assumed I was going to get some catharsis by proxy for my old affront, which still stung. Little did I foresee how the next two hours would validate and repudiate my passions in turn, while taking me on several emotional detours and probing much deeper psychic wounds.
How do far-removed and seemingly random actions, like those of thieves we may never meet, impact us for better and for worse? Would we get any closure by knowing the cause of every event which led us to large life turning points? Even if we could catalog every bike stolen and stone thrown, could we fully understand an infinite number of ripple effects? What does it mean to choose to love another person? Riders wraps these Philosophy 101 questions in snapshots of the lives of characters we come to know and care for, embodied by talented actors such as Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen plays Markus, the soldier of the opening joke setup whose barn becomes gathering space and unit base for the film’s three outcast Wise Men: coder and hacker Lennart (Lars Brygmann), mechanical whiz Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), and statistician Otto (Kaas). Otto was on a train with Markus’ daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), when an explosion injured them and killed Mathilde’s mother. Otto becomes obsessed with discovering who caused their shared trauma, enlisting Lennart and Emmenthaler to help him decipher signs, much as OG Wise Man Caspar probably wheedled Melchior and Balthazar into following that bright star he just knew led somewhere important. Together, the three uncover a connection to the notorious motorcycle gang Riders of Justice, and embark on a journey to find revenge.
When Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler present Markus their righteous cause, he accepts because it gives simple direction to his grief-stricken haze. As Jesus was born in a barn, so is their plan hatched—but before they can destroy the Riders of Justice, they must explain to Mathilde why three men from afar are living in their overcrowded inn. Through a cascade of complicated errors and lies, the foursome convince Mathilde that Lennart and Emmenthaler are grief counselors. This lie necessitates embarking on something resembling trauma therapy, which provides the secondary plot of the film: helping each other heal. Most of their sessions are gleaned from Lennart’s extensive life experiences with therapists, and all are played largely for ridiculousness even as they reveal character background; what matters, though, is less their content and more that everyone involved makes a genuine effort.
‘Lives entwined through trauma’ certainly felt like the primary way I interacted with anyone and everyone in 2021. Death, lockdowns, helping a parent handle divorce and restraining orders, searching for housing and dating in a global pandemic—all were laced with weird trauma we shared, whether we wanted to or not. Like the various characters in Riders of Justice, we searched for meaning in the moment or in retrospect, in ways both rational and ridiculous.
For the first time, almost everyone I knew (or followed on Twitter or read about in the paper or came across at the supermarket) had a point of commonality with at least some of my ongoing trauma, and was trying to make sense of it either explicitly or implicitly while feeling collectively insane. So it was affirming to see Riders of Justice present ‘gleaning meaning from tragedy’ as the explicit drive for Otto and Mathilde, and the implicit one for Markus.
Otto sifts through surveillance footage and private accounts to find connections between the bombing and the Riders, but when he presents his theories to the police, they dismiss him out of hand. Mathilde covers her wall in Post-its in an attempt to find meaning or draw clear connections between her mother’s death and someone’s actions, staying up late and crying in a way somehow all at once childish and adult, mental and emotional, rational and guttural. When she asks her dad whether he can find meaning in the conspiracy wall, he rebuffs her.
Markus is clearly desperate to assign import to his wife’s death, but he can’t punch or shoot God and coincidence. He believes catharsis comes through breaking something, someone. Until Markus can find the party he believes responsible and deserving of breaking, he drinks, showing his feelings by punching faces and walls, cooking meals nobody will eat, and fruitlessly chiding Mathilde to exercise and go back to school—all empty mechanisms which only make him feel more impotent.
Otto’s appearance with a firm answer—biker gang Riders of Justice did this thing—gives Markus something to aim his pain and soldierly skills at, and he takes stock of his assets: a cache of semiautomatic weapons; Mathilde and her Post-it wall; Mathilde’s quasi-boyfriend, Sirius (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt); the three wise men, Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler; and, finally, Bodashka (Gustav Lindh), a Ukranian sex worker sold by his mum to be exploited and later beaten by the Riders.
Though Bodashka has the most reason to want the biker gang destroyed, he also shows the most kindness, cooking and sharing fables as his method of bonding with his new quasi-family unit. As Bodashka convinces Mathilde to go back to school, cooks meals everyone will actually eat, tidies the house, and sympathizes with everyone’s follies, tears, and rampages, he cements the seven into a found family.
Bodashka and Markus’ reactions to their trauma are on either end of a spectrum, with everyone else in the middle. Riders of Justice keenly understands how sometimes trauma makes us hard, and sometimes it makes us soft, but the film’s real magic is how, despite reveling in a few hails of bullets and violent fight sequences, it is food, caring, and open discussion that actually help heal.
This is the prerequisite disclaimer to the prerequisite section where we talk about how nobody wants to talk about the pandemic, but the nature of this issue means we’re going to—the same way Markus may know his self-destructive spiraling is worse than the alternative, but can’t pull out until he hits bottom.
Sheer numbers show I spent 108 days of 2021 in total lockdown, and a more nebulous number in semi-lockdown limbo, both murky categories during which I rewatched a lot of film and TV. Whether fun and fluffy and full of baked goods, or dark and murderous and full of conspiracy theories, there was comfort in knowing how something ended. One of the few connective tissues in what I watched was found family, which has always been among my interests, but stormed to the forefront during the last year of uncertainty.
I rewatched all of Person of Interest, a tech-neo-noir whose core team is made up of outcasts by choice or circumstance—many of whom initially join Team Machine because they have no other life connections, then grow to fight and love each other in complicated, wonderful ways. I eagerly anticipated every new episode of Legends of Tomorrow, the queerest and best, most ridiculous found family on any size screen right now. I binged Wynonna Earp’s long-awaited final season, capping a show entirely about found family and openly in conversation with similar shows where people form their own tight-knit groups after loss, abandonment, or expulsion: Angel, She-Ra, and the aforementioned Legends of Tomorrow, with whom Wynonna writers bantered on social media while its characters swapped in-universe jokes about pop culture and relationships.
Riders of Justice and its dysfunctional found family of middle-aged men who act like pubescent teens while queer teens serve as makeshift parents fit neatly into the entertainment I wanted; a fairy tale for a teen me whose own dad had never grown up (or better), and whose sins were coming back to roost in 2021 as I took over responsibilities for some family I’d finally reconnected with after traumatic events.
When you’re able to choose family, even when they’re related to you by blood, it makes a difference, a statement: I could choose not to. But I won’t. Markus and Mathilde face that choice a few times, and I held my breath. Would they walk away again? Or would they choose each other, try to make this time better?
How much the film’s central characters exercise free will to form a family unit versus being bumbled together by circumstance is debatable—but, however they started, in order to go forward they must understand and make room for each other’s needs and neuroses. This is exemplified in many ways not often depicted in cinema, particularly in cinema revolving around guys who shoot first and ask questions later. They touch, they empathize, they yell—but they apologize and mean it. Otto rubs Emmenthaler’s back when he has panic attacks; Lennart explains Otto’s limp arm and sensitivity around car accidents; Sirius plays mediator when tempers flare. They know or learn each other’s history and secrets, from big childhood trauma to a little murder. They argue and soothe each other and threaten to pull the car over unless everyone in the back starts behaving.
Whether through blood or time or baptism of fire, what else is family than a group of people who know you’re fucked up beyond all reason, and do the hard yards and love you anyway—or watch a movie you like even though they don’t?
I find comfort and joy in watching things with people, whether in cinemas full of strangers or living rooms full of friends; whether feeling a gasp run through a crowd, or watching the face of someone experiencing for the first time a film I’ve long enjoyed.
In 2021, most of my communal watching consisted of myself plus one flatmate/girlfriend/bubble buddy. Big Events such as movie premieres and film festivals took place on my couch. To try and make up the difference, those of us in isolation formulated Zoom watch parties complete with virtual drinks and deconstructions, and it was in one such make-the-best-of-it setting that I first saw Riders of Justice.
Last year, when it became clear how badly this pandemic was going to disrupt the film industry, a local writer friend collected a dozen or so writers on a Discord server. Some of us knew each other by name or reputation, and some had never met, but we all started meeting for regular writing sessions and chats to keep morale up, whether productivity matched it or not.
We helped each other navigate loss—of work, of family members, of motivation, of income, of mental capacity, of health—we worked through writer’s blocks, we exchanged scripts. When—like Markus, Bodashka, and everyone on Instagram this year—we entered the bake carbohydrates phase, we exchanged pretzels and pies, brisket and beer. My cup overflowed even as my eyes ran themselves dry.
The group became one of my most supportive found families, the only one who could understand and sympathize with how the professional part of me was floundering. It’s the reason I wasn’t just able to survive the year, but come out with multiple scripts, another writer’s room credit, and some shreds of sanity. When my Christmas plans were upended by closed borders, canceled flights, and other arbitrary shifting limitations, it was four of us (plus our mascot, Ginsberg the cat) who made our own plans, complete with gifts, roast, a dozen side dishes, and Taylor Swift on the turntable.
When harder lockdowns descended, we took turns picking deliciously trashy ‘90s action flicks and artier festival fare to watch. Riders of Justice was Chas’s pick; Chas’s other group contributions include Best Dad vibes and perfectly cooked celeriac soup. We settled in together apart, with bowls of popcorn and laptops open to our Discord chat. Not much chatting went on, what with the subtitles and incredible pace, but there were plenty of gasps, and, as the credits rolled, universal acclaim from our group of misfit toys.
Like Riders’ wise men, we writers are often nerdy, complicated, neurotic, broken, hilarious, obsessive weirdos. But whether it’s Otto and Emmenthaler arguing about facial recognition thresholds being set at 95% versus 99.1%, or Stu and I fiercely disagreeing about whether a Ted Lasso episode we both adore would be better if re-edited with different pacing, we enjoy each other’s company because most people couldn’t—or wouldn’t want to—have these conversations with us, and we understand something deep about each other from the conclusions we come to.
Thus, it was in Riders I saw a reflection of our own group, projected back to me like a bulbous Christmas ornament: completely different (no murderous rampages, notably fewer long grey beards) but immediately recognizable and dear (common goals, food, stories, and shared therapy learnings).
Though no character voices the usual platitudes—no man is an island, you can’t do this alone, we’re better together— Riders’ stance on needing other people is clear not only in plot, but shots. At a key moment, Mikkelsen’s Markus stands in the open doorway of his barn, framed against a darkly portent sky with a high full moon, a beautiful picture which made me gasp out loud. The camera moves slowly from a low angle, the music swells; anyone who’s ever seen an action movie knows this combination of sound and visuals mean danger is here. But this isn’t a typical Lone Action Hero story; Markus can’t vanquish the coming foes alone. The following scenes pay off everything we’ve learned about all characters to this point, as they have to work together, communicate, and sacrifice for each other to have a chance at any of them surviving, and they’re only able to do this because of the time they’ve spent together and the effort they’ve invested in each other.
As Markus’ gang of misfits slowly reveal their histories to each other, you realize everyone in this grim Christmas fairy tale is without a family not merely because their birth parents, wives, children, and more had died or abused or rejected them. They have all lost family to sad circumstances and ravages of time, but also to tragedies of their own creation: drunken rages, refusals to compromise, dangerous decisions followed to bad ends. In this passing recognition, the movie delivers its most painful truth: if you live long enough and are lucky enough to find family, that doesn’t negate losing again, whether by choice or circumstance or unsurmountable hurt.
After years of trauma, I learned to push it down and appear fine. A few years ago, when it became clear I was very much not fine, I didn’t so much seek therapy as have it thrust upon me. As I started not to rebuild, but to build something I’d never dreamed I could have, I started seeking a new definition of family.
Those of us who undertake the search because we’ve lost—or never had—a foundational family want to believe, after years of work and emotional pain and forging new relationships, that we can eventually possess what we’ve seen many others have seemingly effortlessly: a group who plays together and stays together. Watching Bodashka pause making dinner to look around at his new oddball family unit helping cook, set the table, take photos by the tree, and otherwise comfortably coexist, I felt pangs of mixed longing and happiness. After being hurt and rejected, he was found and accepted, and of everyone in the cabin that snowy silent night, he wanted to give what gifts he had: cooking and storytelling, food and words—his signs of comfort and joy. By virtue of its runtime and fantasy tinges, Riders glazes over the extreme PTSD Bodashka would have to grapple with, but even in his limited screen time Lindh beautifully embodies a complex character. Thanks to him, I can recognize much of myself in someone otherwise wildly different from me.
Riders is full of machine gun cheer and broken fingers, but it ultimately fulfills its prerequisite Christmas ending, bookending itself with scenes of joy. Between those bookends, it asserts in its own grim way that while found families aren’t always happily ever after, a short interlude with the right kind of people—whether they stay with you forever or not—may be enough to help a soldier’s cold heart grow three sizes and stay that way. It knows full well that though credits often roll on happy fictional and cinematic families around a Christmas tree, real life continues after cinema lights go up and Christmas lights come down.
Before the end—which may be soon, whether via ever-morphing virus or Dinosaurs-style nuclear winter or getting caught in the crossfire of a biker gang who mistakes me for one of their targets—maybe I’ll reflect on 2021 and decide Riders of Justice wasn’t my favorite movie. Maybe I’ll revisit it next Christmas only to find two hours without anything as meaningful or genre-twisting or darkly hilarious or emotionally deep as I thought the first four times. Maybe the found family I spent this formative year with won’t want to or be able to stick around, or maybe I’ll be the one to slip out into the cold winter night.
What matters isn’t whether I can track every twist and turn, or trace the ‘Why’s and films of my life until I gain perfect clarity. What matters is, this year I had several varied and disparately weird sorts of family units. What matters is I could watch movies with and ‘with’ people I cared about, and a holiday action comedy about trauma provided two glorious hours of joint revelry amongst our shared-but-separate difficult, unusual, ridiculous times and circumstances. What matters is I understand and love Riders of Justice now in this time and year, that it made me laugh and sweat and gasp and feel things and understand myself better, that it was enough to embrace others in these holiday and pandemic seasons, and that it gave me weird and wonderful tidings of comfort and joy amidst fictional machine-gun fire and real-life trauma.