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Riders of Justice and Pig movies review: rethinking the revenge movie

MaryAnn’s quick take: Two brilliant dramas upend cinematic tropes of male vengeance with precision, patience, and grim humor. These are radical rethinks in emotional maturity surrounding men’s grief, remorse, and shame.
I’m “biast” (pro): adore Mads Mikkelsen; hot and cold on Nicolas Cage
I’m “biast” (con): not keen on men’s revenge stories; hot and cold on Nicolas Cage
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I am done with movies about men driven to vengeance by the deaths of women they love. It’s such an overused cliché, and one so detrimental to the humanity of half the human race onscreen, that it became one of the criteria by which a film could be dinged for its representation of women in my Where Are the Women? project.

What’s worse, in the six and a half years since I developed the WATW test, this trope is now, if anything, even more prevalent. It has become the cheapest, easiest sort of storytelling shorthand for lazy, unimaginative filmmakers. Not a week goes by in which I am not courted by film publicists to cover an action thriller or a sentimental drama in which the male protagonist is subjected to All The Feels because a woman he loves has been taken from him by her death. In an entertainment milieu overcrowded with movies, one in which it’s sometimes difficult for me to decide what ones I’ll review, this garbage makes for an easy Nope.

This is primarily why I put off watching Danish action drama Riders of Justice for so long. Because despite the draw of the never-not-awesome Mads Mikkelsen, this is yet another film about a man driven to violent revenge by the untimely and tragic death of a woman. But the pull of Mikkelsen is strong… and — wonder of wonders! — I was not sorry I gave in. For this is a movie that knows what it is doing with the dead-wife-motivates-man-to-avenge-her nonsense. It knows this is nonsense, and it will go out of its way to show you — slyly, patiently, with much grim humor along the way — precisely how and why it is nonsense, and why we should reject it. Why we should reject vengeance in all its forms.

Mikkelsen (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Doctor Strange) is Markus, a career soldier recalled home to Denmark from Afghanistan to care for his teenage daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), when his wife and her mother, Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind), is killed in a train accident in which Mathilde was also injured. Or was it an accident? Just as Markus is discovering that Mathilde hates him for having been so absent, with their rekindled relationship off to the rockiest of starts, he is offered a distraction in the form of Otto (the also always great Nikolaj Lie Kaas: Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith, Child 44), a statistician who has used math and science to prove that the crash was, in fact, an assassination of another passenger on the train who was about to testify in the high-profile trial of a dangerous gang member. What’s more, Otto knows who is responsible…

Riders of Justice Mads Mikkelsen Andrea Heick Gadeberg
Markus doesn’t want to talk. He wants to hit things… and hit people.

It’s best to know as little about Riders of Justice as possible before going in — do not watch the trailers; they give away too much — but it’s no spoiler for me to say that Otto was also a passenger on that same train. (We see this as film opens.) In fact, he gave Emma his seat out of a sense of gentlemanliness, only for Emma to be killed in that seat while Mathilde and Otto, who were standing, survived. So Otto is feeling guilty, and also would like to be able to blame someone, anyone, for what looks, to everyone else, including the authorities, like an unfortunate accident.

Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen has crafted a sneakily brilliant deconstruction of how we cope — or don’t — with grief, of what drives us to displace remorse and shame, and why all of that can lead to terrible things, particularly as depicted in, well, less self-aware movies than this one. In a way I’ve never seen before, Jensen aligns the actions and motivations of all-id, fists-first Markus with the supposedly cooler, more intellectual motives of Otto and his nerdy pals: they’re like modern Sherlock Holmeses, seeing hidden patterns that reveal secret truths, but are they so very different from Markus in what compels them to do what they do? No, they are not.

Riders of Justice
Road trip to revenge?

There is so much going on in Riders of Justice — it’s one of those movies I feel I could write a book about, it’s so rich and dense with layers and meaning and complexity that I’ve barely touched on here. But it’s the upending of the male-vengeance trope that feels so vital and so necessary to me right now. I’d love to think that what Jensen does with it means that we’ve closed the door on it… but I only need to look at my in-box to see that, sadly, this is not the case.

a particular set of (kitchen) skills…
Nicolas Cage in Pig has also lost a female he loves… but she’s not dead. She’s been kidnapped — a familiar variation on this appalling cliché — torn from him in an act of violence both physical, from her perspective, and psychological, from his, for she is his only friend and now she’s gone. Oh, and also she’s a pig. A truffle-hunting pig, so she’s incredibly valuable and necessary to his survival: selling precious truffle mushrooms is how he makes a living. But he adores her for reasons way beyond that.

(The silence of the lambs? The squealing of this pig as she is being taken is horrifying. So human sounding. So… terrified. She will haunt your nightmares.)

None of this, on its own, would be enough to absolve Pig for its deployment of this hoary cliché… except that Pig also uses it as a jumping-off point for slamming notions of revenge that the movies have been piling upon us for far too long.

Pig Nicolas Cage
Rob and friend in happier times.

For Pig is — and I mean this in the best, most complimentary, most awestruck way — John Wick meets First Cow. It is anticapitalist rage and anti-toxic-masculinity gentleness crashing up against the revenge thriller and finding a new paradigm for delivering retribution to those who have done a man wrong. I’m not sure I have felt this kind of captivating pitifulness, and later bittersweetly gratifying triumph, toward a Cage character — the actor has in recent decades made an unappealing career out of indulging tropes of toxic masculinity — since he told Kathleen Turner in 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married, “I’m gonna prove I love you! I’m gonna be just like Fabian.”

Cage’s (Color Out of Space, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) Rob lives in a ramshackle cabin in the Pacific Northwest woods that, from what information we glean as the film opens, could easily exist in the world of 200 years ago, his life is that simple, that rough. But then a modern sportscar in sunshine yellow zooms up, carrying Amir (Alex Wolff: Jumanji: The Next Level, Hereditary), Rob’s proudly asshole-ish connection to the modern world: Rob sells his truffles to Amir. And after the pig has been carried off, Rob reluctantly enlists Amir — who is also reluctant, to say the least — to hunt down her kidnappers and get her back.

Pig Nicolas Cage
Would you let this man prepare you a meal? (Spoiler: Yes, you absolutely would.)

Astonishingly, Pig is the first feature from director Michael Sarnoski. (He wrote the script with Vanessa Block.) This is an incredibly accomplished film that surprises at every turn. It’s an anti-revenge movie that plays with clichés of action movies with deliberate precision, often with blackly funny results, but it is in no way an action movie itself. It’s a movie about civilizational disasters no one sees coming and personal dreams that get thrown away: these are tragedies that the subtly profound Rob speaks of in ways that give them equal weight, and rightly so. It’s a movie about revenge as a dish best prepared by a master chef, serving food so good it makes you cry. It’s a movie that desperately demands an accompanying cookbook. (Rustic Mushroom Tart? I’m defo gonna need the recipe for that.)

This is a small, quiet film about pain so big that it can barely be contained. For men in movies, that pain too frequently erupts into violence. In Pig, loneliness, sorrow, and regret are embraced as feelings worth sitting with, exploring, and learning from, rather than denying and dismissing them. This should not feel as radical a lesson in emotional maturity as it does.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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