Riders of Justice (15) ****
The World to Come (15) **
Night of the Kings (15) **
Bye Bye Morons (N/R) ***
I Never Cry (15) ***
A pitch-black comedy thriller in the early Coen brothers mould, Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice casts Mads Mikkelsen as Markus, a soldier and father of a teenage girl (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) who embarks on a mission to hunt down the biker gang who may have caused his wife’s death. Though a vigilante film starring Mikkelsen is already an easy sell – not least because the star is on an absolute career roll and can inject soulfulness and charisma into even the most dead-eyed, PTSD-afflicted characters (which Markus most surely is) – the film’s revenge plot is given a fresh twist by teaming him up with a band of on-the-spectrum coders obsessed with the statistical probability of terrible events. They’re led by Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kass), a statistician who becomes convinced that the train crash that has killed Markus’s wife (and of which Otto is also a survivor) is actually an elaborately staged hit to eliminate a key witness in a trial against Roland Møller’s outlaw gang leader. Along with Otto’s equally eccentric cohort Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and their schlubby, uber-nerdy computer expert pal Emmanthaler (Nicolas Bro), this group insinuates itself into the lives of Markus and Gadeberg’s Mathilde and are soon forced to confront the very real effects of violence when Markus’s killer instincts kick into gear. What follows weaves in a treatise on grief and the futility of vengeance, but Jensen, mercifully, remains fully committed to his oddball action movie premise. The ensuing mix of insouciant violence and mordant comedy might not always come off, but it’s stylishly executed and Mikkelsen is mesmerising in the lead.
A tepid lesbian romance that makes the recent Ammonite look like Basic Instinct, The World to Come wallows in the sexual repression of its hardscrable American frontier setting to such a degree that the smouldering passion its main characters share is all but extinguished before it can spark to life. Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby take the leads as, respectively, Abigail and Tallie, neighbouring farmers’ wives who find sanctuary from the emotional and intellectual incarceration of marriage in their nascent friendship. With the former grieving the loss of her daughter to diphtheria – a tragedy that has exacerbated her estrangement from her mostly kind-natured spouse (Casey Affleck) – and the latter refusing to give her insecure and controlling husband (Christopher Abbott) children of his own, the film presents their childlessness as an additional isolating factor for both women. And yet the intensity of their connection is diminished by the film’s insistence on filtering everything through Abigail’s diary entries, a stylistic choice that has a minor pay-off in the film’s final moments – via director Mona Fastvold’s creative use of montage – but isn’t really enough to justify the relentless barrage of ornately written voice-over narration that makes the preceding 90 minutes feel like watching an audiobook with visuals.
Similarly sidelining its cinematic credentials is Night of the Kings, an Ivory Coast-set prison movie that plays more like a multimedia theatre project about the power of storytelling. Repeatedly commenting on this theme rather than actually demonstrating it in practice, the film revolves around Roman (Bakary Koné), a new inmate to La Maca prison, a forest-encased fortress on the outskirts of Abidjan that’s notorious for being run by the inmates. Being in control is a far cry from being free, though, and Roman’s arrival coincides with a power shift that sees the prison’s waning king, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), anoint him as La Maca’s new storyteller, a sacrificial position that forces Roman to talk for his life on a night of bloody transition. Building on West African oral traditions, writer/director Philippe Lacôte – who grew up in Abidjan and whose mother was a political prisoner in La Maca – may be trying to do something interesting here by combining performance art with CGI-enhanced flights of fancy and interpretive dance, but what has the potential to be thrilling in a live setting is feels inert on screen. The film’s various shout-outs to the kinetic City of God only reinforce how stilted this is by comparison.
French actor Albert Dupontel swept this year’s Césars – the French equivalent of the BAFTAs – with Bye Bye Morons, winning six awards for his eighth film as a director. Though fun in places, it’s hard to understand all the plaudits. Revolving around a suicidal civil servant (Dupontel) and the terminally ill hairdresser (Virginie Efira) who blackmails him into helping her find the son she was forced to give up when she was 15, the film is a kind of farcical black comedy that also functions as a broad satire about bureaucracy in the digital age (there are some sly nods to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil). Infuriatingly, though, the plot gets a little out of hand, veering from the madcap mayhem of a latter-day Jean-Pierre Jeunet fantasy to the creepiness of a high concept Richard Curtis rom-com.
A live-wire central performance from Polish newcomer Zofia Stafiej carries Piotr Domalewski’s I Never Cry through its more familiar coming-of-age beats. Charged by her financially and emotionally stretched mother to repatriate her estranged father’s body following his death on a job in Ireland, 17-year-old Ola’s quest becomes – thanks to Stafiei’s vibrant performance – a moving exploration of the uncertainties facing Generation Z in a Europe unmoored by global anxieties.
Riders of Justice, Night of the Kings, Bye Bye Morons and I Never Cry are on selected release in cinemas and streaming on premium digital platforms from 23 July; The World to Come is in cinemas from 23 July.
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