As meaning-seeking creatures, it’s natural to want to know why after major tragedies occur. Isn’t this what drives our love of mysteries, whether Agatha Christie or Knives Out? I’ve even seen it argued that the song of the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey was an offer to impart the whole truth of the Trojan War, something Odysseus and his soldiers were willing to die to attain.
Two new films play on this thirst for answers in satisfying yet different ways. Riders of Justice, a Danish film starring the ever-watchable Mads Mikkelsen, takes a more cosmic approach, inquiring if our suffering has a higher purpose or is just a bunch of atom-bumping.
With its blend of violence and dark humor, this is a tale in the vein of In Bruges or the Coen Brothers. Since those films scratch where I itch, and the script by writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen is crafty and witty, this is my favorite comedy of 2021 so far.
The laughs don’t come right away, however. Mikkelsen plays Marcus, an officer on combat deployment overseas. He’s summoned home after his wife dies in a subway crash, leaving him to raise his teenage daughter Mathilde alone.
The comedy starts when an awkward middle-aged trio arrives on Marcus’ doorstep. (One of them was on the train with Markus’ wife, thoughtfully yielding his seat to her and thus feeling culpable for her death). Outcasts and misfits, but geniuses with statistics and computers, they’re convinced the subway was wrecked intentionally to kill a witness in a criminal trial against a biker gang chieftain. Through hacking and data analysis, they put the chieftain’s brother at the accident scene as saboteur.
Markus and the trio start investigating, and since Markus is better with fists than words, the body count grows. Meanwhile, his efforts at single parenting are failing, at a new low after punching Mathilde’s boyfriend. His apology to his daughter: “I didn’t mean to hit him that hard.”
Markus could’ve been a caricature in the hands of a lesser actor or writer/director. Here, he’s a short-fused combat veteran sharing traits and likeability with The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak. Indeed, the touchy-feely boyfriend (his mom’s a shrink, after all) and the socially maladroit nerds could’ve all been clichés, but Jensen clearly loves his characters and gives dimension to them. And I’m pretty sure you won’t guess the clever twists in Jensen’s story ahead of time.
This pleasing element of surprise is about the only thing Riders of Justice shares in common with The Dry, a whodunit free of existential yearning. Melbourne-based federal agent Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) returns to the drought-infested farming town of his youth, after his best friend Luke is believed to have killed his wife and his son, before turning the shotgun on himself. Luke’s parents plead with Aaron to look over the novice local cop’s shoulder, to ensure the book hasn’t been closed prematurely on this alleged murder-suicide.
Intertwined with this present-day mystery is the tragedy that caused Aaron to leave town twenty years earlier, when he and Luke were implicated in the suspicious death of their friend Ellie. This narrative teasingly unspools in sporadic flashbacks distinguished by their grainy film stock and a more saturated color palette.
As directed by Robert Connelly, The Dry has a terrific sense of place. The dry river beds and sky free of rain have heightened the desperation of the town’s small tract farmers, already threatened with insolvency by automation and industrial farms. If Bana doesn’t give his character an impressive psychological depth, he nonetheless manages to embody the insider/outsider tension that his homecoming entails.
Based on a novel by Jane Harper, this is an engaging, suspenseful story that entices us with a number of suspects for the crimes old and new, though its conclusion feels overly tidy. Still, I don’t regret the price of my movie ticket, and The Dry whet my appetite to track down other writings by Harper.