These days it’s hard to come by a film trilogy where each one is truly worth the time to invest in. Of course there are the classics like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Die Hard to name a few (just disregard the later additions) but in the recent decade it’s been a hit or miss field. Sometimes we get someting great like the Bourne films and other times we get some that trailed off like *eh hem* Spider-Man. We hope to be rewarded with a franchise like the former but as many will tell you, it doesn’t always work out. Some are made just for money, some change too much in tone and style (The Matrix) and some can just never match that first one for a variety of reasons (Beverly Hills Cop). So, it’s a real treat when we get a series that is enjoyable from beginning to end. Well, I’m here to tell you there’s another one out there to put on your Netflix queue: The Pusher Trilogy.
If you’ve read any of my other blogs you’ll know of my recent obsession with Danish Cinema. Well this one is no different, but for the record I was recommended the series before my recent love affair. However, I just happened to finally see it in the midst of my studies on the region’s films. The first film burst onto the scene in 1996 and was successful in its homeland, forging successful careers for many of the actors involved and for writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, who made his debut with the film. The series is considered a “gangster” film akin to others like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrells and follows the drug “community” in Copenhagen.
Refn managed to do a few things which makes the trilogy a success. He wanted to take a truly realistic approach to portraying the criminal, drug scene of Copenhagen and he ended up capturing that realistic essence perfectly. First, he mainly uses handheld cameras, giving it an organic, homemade feel. This is something that in recent years has become popular and when used properly, definitely pays off. Refn did hire many true actors but many of the roles, mostly the minor ones, are filled with real people and real criminals. If you’ve seen City of God, Refn manages to create that same realistic feeling that film succeeded in. While he doesn’t do it to the same degree, he still manages to succeed at creating that “fake documentary” atmosphere. Refn also used a lot of real criminals as consultants on the film to ensure the realistic nature of many of the scenes.
One thing that Refn does that is truly original (but not unheard of) is that he shoots his films in chronological order. I’m sure many filmmakers would love to do this but it’s usually just possible due to time, budget and all those other things that go into making a film. But Refn does it and from what I have read it’s for no other reason than that he doesn’t understand why a filmmaker wouldn’t do it. I’m not sure if this adds to the success of the trilogy, but perhaps allowing the actors to chronologically follow the path of their characters helps them with the growth (or demise) of that particular character. Either way, it doesn’t hurt.
If you are at all familiar with Danish film, or Lars von Trier, you may notice some influences. von Trier was instrumental in beginning the Dogme 95 movement that still exists but is not as affluent as it once was. Basically the Dogme movement sought to create films that were the complete opposite of the mega-million blockbuster. It took a very minimal approach to filming that involved no artificial lighting, no overdubs of music and they even outlawed props being brought in. Even some of the best official Dogme films broke some rules but in the best ones it aided in creating a truly organic and realistic tone. While Refn doesn’t go this far (these are not Dogme films) the influence is definitely there. It may be a coincidence as the first film came out in 1996 while the movement was created in 1995 but there’s a good chance he was at least indirectly influenced.
One major thing to take notice of is that it wasn’t Refn’s original intention to make a trilogy. He made the first in 1996 and the second two didnt come out until nearly 6 years later. He actually only decided to make two more after a film of his failed miserably and he was close to financial ruin. I guess it can be said he made the final two for the wrong reasons: to make money. What’s so amazing is that the second two rival the first sometimes even come out better. That would never happen in Hollywood.
By now you’re probably wondering at least what the basic plots are? Well at their basic level, they’re nothing too striking or original. The first one follows Frank (Kim Bodnia) a drug dealer who is quiet and pensive but who has a hard time settling down and taking anything seriously. He is constantly hanging out wiht his friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) and getting high without any regard for anyone else. He gets a request for a large amount of heroin, so he goes to his dealer Milo (Zlatko Buric). (Let it be known that Milo is the only character to appear in all three films, albeit a small cameo in the second) Unfortunately, the deal goes bad for Frank. Milo doesn’t believe his story and he’s in more debt than he was already in. See, doesnt’ sound too astounding. Drug dealer in debt. But it isn’t the basic story that is so enthralling, it’s the way in which Refn manages to tell it. It’s the way in which he makes us feel for each character. We know all these guys are involved in selling drugs, or something equally as bad, but we don’t view them as low lifes. Refn makes us really sympathize for Frank and not in a cheap “Paul Haggis” way. We are given barely any background for the characters, but only come to know them through their actions and interactions with the other characters.
So Frank is in debt. We learn a lot more about who he is once he has to figure out what to do. It is only then that we can truly make up our minds about who he is. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll leave it at that.
The second film picks up a few years later and follows Tonny’s character. He has just been released from prison (presumably for drug-related activities) and is now attempting to assimilate back into society. His father runs a mechanic/drug operation. Mostly he steals cars and resells them and sells drugs. His father has a new son, much younger, and is in a bitter battle over him with the kid’s mother. It’s fairly blatant that Tonny’s father prefers his new son but Tonny is still welcomed home (barely). He has some minor memory issues from the previous film (there’s barely any connection to all three films other than this and a few minor mentions of other things) and is seen as more or less an idiot by his father and his friends/co-workers. Tonny wants to show is father that he is capable of working for him and wants to get serious about his life but he has a hard time avoiding some old friends and resisting some old temptations. Tonny wants to go back to living the way he did in the first film, partying all the time, always getting high and drunk, but he also realizes that he needs to grow up and get serious if he wants to make a living. Even if that living is criminal in nature. It’s a much more touching story than the first but I’m also partial to Mads Mikkelsen as I have a big man crush on the guy. The film does have a more sentimental feeling to it, although all of them have this quality, and Tonny comes off as more pathetic than Frank did. Personally, this is my favorite of all 3.
The final film picks up withe Milo, the drug lord from the first, who happens to make a small cameo in the second as his daughter is about to celebrate her 25th birthday. This film takes place over the course of one day as Milo attempts to juggle putting together a party for his daughter while running his business. It opens with Milo attending an “drugs anonymous” group and he admits he is attempting to finally quite using. Immediately you are given a glimpse of this drug lord as a human. He’s an old, fragile man who has a family and is essentially no different than any one else. He just happens to be addicted to heroin, cocaine and sells them for a living. Ironically, Milo soon finds himself in debt like Frank was to him in the first movie. Milo is then torn between his daughter’s birthday party and attempting to maintain his business. Like the previous film it shows a man trying to change his life for the better yet unable to escape it. He wants to quit drugs but is constantly surrounded by them due to the nature of his business and his company. I found this one to be the moste depressing of all the films and like the previous two, you definitely sympathize for someone who by all conventional terms is a “bad man.”
I know this post is extremely long but I really felt passionate about this series and wanted to share it with all of you. I’m not sure how popular this is in the States. Maybe you’ve all seen it and this is nothing new. But if you havn’t, I strongly recommend it. It isn’t just another series of “indie action” films. Actually, I wouldn’t describe these as “gangster” films like some would. To me that invokes some action like blown up cars and gun fights and while some of that is definitely involved, it’s more about the emotional struggles of the characters and not he pulling off a heist or something similar.
If you have seen these films definitely let me know, I’m curious to hear what others think? Which one is your favorite? Why? I’d love to get into some deeper conversations about them with people who already know the endings!