Pusher. 1996. Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay by Jens Dahl & Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring Kim Bodnia, Zlatko Buric, Laura Drasbaek, Slavko Labovic, and Mads Mikkelsen. Magnolia Home Entertainment.
Not Rated. 110 minutes.
★★★★★ (DVD release)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s debut Pusher is an adrenaline rush tour through the Copenhagen drug world. There is a gritty, real feeling about this movie, which really puts you in the shoes of the main character, Frank (Kim Bodnia).
Frank is a drug dealer. Most of his days he spends messing about with his friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen long before his excellent turn as the infamous Doctor Lecter on NBC’s Hannibal). The beginning of the film opens showing us exactly what sort of guy Frank really is, apart from the fact he deals drugs. He and Tonny meat some guys for a deal. The guy only has 45,000 kroner, but Frank brought 50k worth. It comes down to Frank hauling out 5,000 worth of the heroin by hand in a piece of newspaper, and making the guy take the 45,000 left, which of course is not accurately weighed. Frank and Tonny force the man into the deal and then leave. We then watch the two of them basically act the fool, go out for dinner, and so on. Frank also stashes his drugs at Vic’s (Laura Drasbaek) place; she is a prostitute with whom Frank has a relationship, although he seems to deny this outwardly even to his best friend Tonny. Eventually, Frank finds himself involved in a sketchy drug deal with a man who says he was in prison at the same time as him. Frank already owes Milo (Zlatko Buric) 50,000 kroner. He goes to Milo and asks to help get 200 grams of heroin for a deal. While Frank already owes him, Milo generously allows him to take the 200, and agrees he will come back after the deal with the money. However, when Frank goes on the deal it turns out the cops show up. They chase Frank, who tosses the 200 grams of heroin into a pond. He’s questioned, released with no charges, and forced to go back to Milo who is of course suspicious; no charges, as well as no dope, and no money. Now Frank is faced with few options. The rest of the film unfolds as Frank tries to find a way to pay Milo, or else start losing fingers, toes, and possibly much, much more. First, he assumes Tonny to be the one who ratted him out, though, it isn’t something he knows for sure, but goes ahead and beats his friends senseless with a baseball bat. Afterwards, Frank has to start trying to collect money he’s owed, under supervision of Milo’s muscle Radovan (Slavko Labovic), or else things start to get worse for him.
As I mentioned starting out there’s a super realistic style to Pusher. You can tell it’s an independently made film, but that doesn’t come with any negative connotations. This is low-budget at its best. Refn apparently was using a 5-minute short film, which would later become this movie, as a sort of entrance application to a Danish film school. He decided not to go, and instead pursued Pusher with money he managed to put together. I really admire that quality about this film. Not only that, the grit of the film’s look really adds a gravity to the subject matter. There’s not one real happy moment, you could say, throughout the whole of the movie’s runtime. There are moments where, yes, Frank seems happy, however, there’s never really any point we see him at a high; other than actually being high on drugs. The whole plot is a grim look into the life of a Copenhagen drug dealer. Kim Bodnia is a fantastic actor. I first saw him here. Next, I watched Refn’s Bleeder, which I loved, and Bodnia was spectacular in that, as well (his character was a greaseball basically and yet he just gave such a great performance). He continues to do a lot of cool work. Here, as Frank, Bodnia does a great job. You sort of linger between liking and hating Frank, or at least I do – he’s part charm, part pure and unadulterated sleaze. There are times he makes you want to laugh because he does have a sort of fun side. Then the others you really see how disgustingly low-life Frank truly can be.
I really liked Mikkelsen in his minor supporting role as Tonny. I’m a big fan of his anyways. He shows up again in the next installment – Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands. The sequel is basically another story in their little nook of Copenhagen, their ugly crime world. He is great in that, too. We get to see more of Tonny there, which is great because I thought his character was a lot of fun; turns out there is a whole other side to him.
Mainly, I really love the character Milo, and Zlatko Buric plays him to perfection. Luckily, he pops up in all three installments of Pusher. We even get a full look at him in the third, Pusher III: I Am the Angel of Death. He is a fabulous actor here. I’ve never seen anything else with him in it, but I loved his portrayal of Milo. I both laughed at him and feared him. He has a real dark presence about him when he gears it up. Other moments have him looking more like a sweet middle-aged man who just wants to cook, and share the treats he whips up in the kitchen with others. Oh, Mil0 – what a guy.
This is a great story amongst a sea of terribly written crime stories out there. Pusher at times feels a lot like Mean Streets, but with more edge to it, a little dirtier and grimier. It’s a tight story. The final moments are some of my favourites of the entire film. Refn really knows how to work the audience, as far as I’m concerned. I found myself absolutely hooked in, and the end had me reeling. It sort of ends on an ambiguous tone. We know Frank is in trouble, we just don’t know how much, and if he’ll be able to avoid it; maybe he’ll run off somewhere, get away. Even in Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands, Milo shows up and he asks Tonny about Frank – where he is, what he’s doing. We still never get a real definitive answer on whether or not Frank is alive, or simply off an extended, imposed vacation because of his debts. I really love that about the movie, and further, the trilogy. We’re still left never sure of what happens in the end of the first film. Rare, and very great touch story-wise.The film itself is an absolute 5 star film. What a debut on Refn’s part. He really bust onto the film scene with this, following himself up with really interesting work in Bleeder, Fear X, the two other installments in the Pusher trilogy, and going on to other incredibly unique films such as Bronson starring Tom Hardy, Valhalla Rising again with frequent collaborator Mads Mikkelsen, and most recently two films with Ryan Gosling, Drive and Only God Forgives. I really look forward to his new all-female horror The Neon Demon, which promises to be something both unique and possibly very weird. I think his work is unique. In a lot of his more recent work, he shows an eye for framing and composition I find similar to that of Stanley Kubrick’s work. There’s a sensibility about Refn I feel is generally lost when it comes to most other filmmakers out there. He is a fresh talent. I hope he makes tons and tons of films before his time on this earth is over.
I was highly impressed with the DVD release by Magnolia Home Entertainment. Pusher came as the full trilogy, with separate discs for Pusher II and Pusher III, as well. On each disc there are a bunch of really fun and interesting special features. On the first Pusher disc, there is a bunch of awesome little bits such as trailers and clips for Bollywood remake, which I did not know existed. Then, there’s a great hour and a half documentary about Refn’s struggle to get out of a big financial debt. You really get to see a lot of Refn and what he’s like. I found it very interesting. There are bits behind the scenes of his movies, only short, and a lot of his life at home. Certainly worth the purchase. The other Pusher films have more extras, which is a treat. Full 5 stars on the DVD release, as well.
If you’ve yet to see Pusher and its sequels, rush and see them – now. If you are into crime films, these are the ones to see. They are dark, gritty, real, and very tightly scripted. It goes to show what sort of amazing little stories you can tell without multi-million dollar budgets and huge named American stars. This movie is a tense and pulse pounding crime film at times. It doesn’t just settle for being another genre movie. There are some resonant themes not simply confined to the crime/drug world, especially as the trilogy moves further on and Refn figures out his groove.
Refn bust into the world with Pusher, and assured much more excellent work would follow. If you’ve already seen this, hurry up and get the DVD releases for each of the three Pusher movies – they’re great films, plus some neat extras to bring you deeper into Refn’s vision of the Copenhagen drug world.