In the opening credits of each film in Nicolas Winding Refn‘s "Pusher" trilogy, the characters are introduced one at a time, posed in dramatic chiaroscuro as their name flashes on screen. It recalls "Pulp Fiction"‘s chapter intertitles or "Trainspotting"‘s exhilarating Iggy Pop-set freeze-frame intro, which is sort of the joke â€” in the "Pusher" films there’s no trace of cool, and the only time anyone looms larger than life is in that moment before the film really starts.
The story goes that Refn barreled onto the scene with 1996’s "Pusher," which he made at age 26 and which went on to be a huge success in Europe, scoring a smaller theatrical run in the US in 1999. He followed it up with two arthouse exercises, 1999’s "Bleeder" and last year’s English-language "Fear X," which starred John Turturro and was scripted by "Requiem for a Dream"‘s Hubert Selby Jr. Both tanked, leaving Refn so broke he returned to his first success. Eight years after its premiere, "Pusher" had a sequel; the year after, it was the first installment of a trilogy.
Maybe it’s not surprising that "Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands" is much better than the first film, and "Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death" is the highlight of the three. "Pusher" is very much a product of its time and its young director. The film tracks low-level Copenhagen smack dealer Frank (Kim Bodnia) over the course of a week that sees him plummet from carefree king of his shabby domain to walking corpse, hopelessly in debt to local kingpin Milo after a huge deal goes very wrong, burning through all of his relationships in a frantic effort to save himself. "Pusher" revels in its own portrayals of grime and despair, neither of which has been enough to sustain a film for ages before the mid-90s. In the interests of gritty naturalism, scenes progress at a leisurely or sometimes dawdling pace, sometimes suddenly exploding into violence but just as often stretching unpleasantly thin, like a night out that’s dragged into the early morning. But "Pusher"’s real weak spot is Frank â€” unfortunate, as he’s in almost every scene in the film. At time frightening and at times frustratingly dumb, Frank remains emotionally an impassive enigma its hard to root for.
"Pusher II" focuses on Tonny, the hapless friend Frank nearly beats to death for supposedly ratting him out to the cops. Played by breakout star Mads Mikkelsen, who may be familiar from "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" and who will soon be very familiar as a Bond villain, Tonny is the kind of fuckup who thinks it’s a good idea to get "Respect" tattooed on the back of his skull, as if it will ever earn him some. Fresh out of jail and already in debt, he arrives at the doorstep of his father, a minor crime lord who calls himself "the Duke," looking for work. Clearly some time has passed since "Pusher" (Frank is only mentioned once in the latter films, and never appears again); Tonny looks worse for the wear. He settles into old habits, cocaine and petty crime he nevertheless can’t handle, belittled by everyone, still hoping to regain his father’s love and never realizing that he was written off long ago. He may have fathered a child with prostitute Charlotte, but she doesn’t want more from him than monthly child support. What makes this hopelessness palatable is the fact that "Pusher"’s casual misanthropy has been replaced by a kind of weary humanism. Tonny’s an idiot, a mess, and extremely likable; grasping at the broken pieces of his life, he makes the occasional small triumph (successfully changing a diaper) seem like a huge accomplishment, even as we learn he’s in far deeper trouble than he’s even been before, for once for something that wasn’t his fault.
In "Pusher III" the elements Refn touched on
before finally come together for what, even taken alone, is a very good film. The last installment is about Milo (Zlatko Buric), the mid-level dealer and cafe owner who was a small but memorable presence in the previous films, a character both menacing and jarringly hospitable and friendly. Here, that remove is gone, and we see that Milo’s life is also teetering on chaos. He gets scammed by his Algerian supplier and harassed by upstart underlings who taunt him for his accent and for being too old. He fields requests from his imperious daughter Milena, who’s having a massive 25th birthday party for which he’s paying as well as doing all the cooking; he’s also trying to sell off a large amount of ecstasy that was erroneously delivered to him, a development that will turn out to have terrible repercussions. It’s a lot for one day, and he barely has time to duck out to N.A. meetings â€” he’s five days sober, and it’s not going to last.
In the fluorescent-lit drug underworld Refn has evoked so vividly, there’s never a question of trust, even among family â€” betrayal is expected and half-forgivable, and it’s reasonable to remain vaguely fond of someone while fully intending to kill them for not paying up. Milo seems crushed by a lifetime of living like that, and the sadness of the scene in which he gives in to his addictions comes mainly from its terrible familiarity. Huddled in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant, he presses some heroin
into the tip of a cigarette and gulps down the smoke, and there’s an oppressive sense of how many times he’s been in the same place before. Five clean days down the drain, while the years he’s spent building his business count for nothing; he’s still (gruesomely) clawing back all comers in order to keep what he already has.
All three films open in New York today.
+ The PUSHER trilogy (Magnolia)