It’s unfashionable to encourage people to go see an unfamiliar movie. We tried it with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Slither, and the encouragement seemed to have exactly the wrong effect. But to hell with it — and to hell with anyone who doesn’t want to be led to water — I’m going to do it again. Except that I’m not going to suggest anyone see one new flick. I’m going to encourage readers to go see three.
Ten years ago Nicolas Winding Refn made Pusher, his feature debut. The story of Frank, a mid-level dealer, the film concentrated on the unstable everyday lives of Frank and friends, rather than on clever gags and flash-cut violence. Refn used a highly mobile handheld camera to roam the streets of Copenhagen, following Frank as he invested in a bad deal, then tried desperately to escape the rapidly constricting circumstances that followed. It was like a Dogme95 project, but without the pretension.
Fortunately for us, financial problems forced Refn to revisit that storyline in 2004 and
The trilogy is raw and intense. It’s sharp-edged, with occasional flashes of graphic underworld living. (Prudes beware the porno flashes in Pusher II.) But the films are also oddly easy going, willing to let mundane daily routine take center stage. These aren’t movies about cruelly imaginative killers holding guns at funny angles. They explore a lifestyle ruled by businessmen and nobodies determined to come out on top, no matter what.
It’s an environment where oaths and bonds are gravely important and easily broken. One where a single dishonorable act can turn friend into an executioner. With blunt dialogue in several languages, Refn deftly defines the underbelly of Copenhagen, populating it with more than a dozen brutal, flawed and mesmerizing characters. It feels like the old world; ethnic and national tensions underscore uneasy business deals.
And, at their best, these three movies are magnificent and unforgettable. The scope of each one is tight, focused, but taken whole the trilogy achieves epic proportions. Pusher II is the highlight, and while the bookend chapters are less perfectly crafted, the tapestry woven by the trilogy is strong enough to stand against the Godfather saga in a lineup of crime cinema.
As an introduction, Pusher is a self-contained episode that now seems like proof of concept. Frank (Kim Bodnia) is close friends with Tonny (Mads Mikklesen), a gangster whose bald pate bears the word ‘respect’ in large letters. An old prison acquaintance convinces Frank to organize a drug deal, eventually putting him into hock with the Serbian supplier Milo (Zlatko Buric). Soon he’s cutting one emergency deal after another in order to survive.
The movie has many of the ingredients you’d expect to see in a gangster film post-Tarantino. As Frank and Tonny cruise Copenhagen, they talk more about sex than committing crimes. Cinematic references lurk in the Tony Montana stills and film posters adorning Frank’s apartment.
But as Frank gets into more troubled water, the glib references fall away and the film comes into it’s own. Frank’s life gradually becomes a more desperate bid for survival, and there’s nothing enticing or glamorous about it. It’s a total about face from the smirking, goofy gangster stuff we’ve been fed for years.
Dedicating your movie to refuting gangster stereotypes is a tightrope. Outright moralizing is dull and offensive. Refn keeps the frame kinetic and his meanings clear. Frank’s predicament speaks for itself, and even when the film’s energy draws us into his disintegrating stability rather than a Guy Ritchie blend of expensive cars and suits, it’s difficult not to be torn between sympathy and revulsion for the guy.
The storyline may be mundane, but the characters are vibrant. Kim Bodnia allows Frank to fray at a perfect pace. Zlatko Buric makes Milo a uniquely fearsome drug lord, as he kills his ‘friends’ after offering them (badly) homemade food. Refn knew a good thing when he saw it, and Milo is the only character to appear in all three films. His right hand man Radovan (Slavko Labovic) gives self-awareness and humanity to the thuggish enforcer. As ugly as all their actions are, they all feel like living, breathing people. That you’d both fear Milo and be willing to have a beer with him is a sign of the film’s achievement, and a promise of what’s to come.
Pusher II – With Blood On My Hands
He took a serious beating in Pusher, but Tonny isn’t dead. He’s just in prison, and we’ll discover that he’s almost useless as a human being, if not in expected ways. But at least he’s alive. Bearing extensive scars, Tonny isn’t quite the tough guy he initially seemed to be. Suddenly his tattoos are less than ironic; they’re pathetic bids to fit in with his extended criminal family.
Pusher II is a gangster film unlike any other. Mads Mikklesen crawls his way through the story’s ugly images of personal and professional failure in a way that’s more Bergman than Coppola. It’s not often you see a film beat a character down in quite this way, and even rarer that the person doesn’t turn into a conveniently vengeful killing machine when the time comes to leave audiences with a last impression.
Ironically, all of Tonny’s failures make him less criminal and more human. That humanity, or the effort to attain it, is the most unexpected novelty in the film. In making Tonny an almost gentle and sympathetic character (with respect to what’s around him) Pusher II becomes almost touching, and certainly the only optimistic chapter.
Refn woke up from a gangster-idolatry daze while making the first film, and this time he’s like a man on a mission. This is the gangster stripped bare, and watching is like walking in on your parents having sex. Weird, searing and full of ugly truth.
Yet the directorial stance feels no more intrusive than before. The experience of With Blood On My Hands is like being in the room with these people. If that’s not anyone’s definition of fun, it’s also impossible to stop watching.
Pusher III – I Am The Angel of Death
Between kicking dope, dealing, running a club and cooking for the 50 guests at his daughter’s 25th birthday, Milo is a little distracted. Any other day he might be on top of his game, but this one isn’t so rosy. So a bad dope deal leads to a dodgy ecstasy sale, which creates…the sort of mess that always seems to find Refn’s characters. Milo makes it all the way to sexual slavery and dismemberment before the night is out. The film draws tighter and tighter around the dealer. His actions, which always seem like the best choice at the time, slowly back him into a corner.
Looking back at my initial review of this chapter, I was fairly harsh towards the meandering path is takes through the night in question. And we do spend a lot of time with Milo as he runs around trying to keep his life together. It works much better as a third chapter than a standalone film, as many relationships and details carry forward. The other chapters are better equipped to fly solo.
But I’m forgiving towards the movie now, because I love Zlatko Buric’s performance. Milo is welcome in all three films, but here Buric grabs the spotlight without even seeming to try. The return of Slavko Labovic is also welcome, as Radovan is among the trilogy’s best characters, and one of the most complex as well. The way in which he integrates what we’d call ‘real life’ with utter violent butchery would shoot holes in Refn’s thesis if he was casting moral judgement on Milo. Instead, Radovan’s actions make the story more complex.
There are other reasons for me to forgive the film’s flaws. One is the mélange of languages; I love the way we see cultures butting up against one another. Another is Refn’s technical ability, where is greatly improved. Pusher III is confident and almost calculated; the previous two films were shot more from the hip. That helps him with the stew of language and culture. Dialogue and non-verbal interactions are far more complex, and there are layers in most scenes that only become apparent the second or third time around.
It’s also the sickest chapter. I Am The Angel of Death is no whimsical subtitle. In the first film, we didn’t see what happens when Radovan starts lining the floor with plastic. We do this time. But the violence isn’t flashy, and it’s not arbitrary. The first two films show the loss of freedom and family, but this one steals humanity altogether. It’s horrifying, and the fact that I still want to watch Milo by the film’s end indicates just how good Refn has become.
Pusher II: 9.1
Pusher III: 8.5