Wednesday, August 23, 2006


The Pusher Trilogy*

At first glance, the three films that comprise the Pusher trilogy would be best described as Danish Tarantino knock-offs. I always hate that sort of comparison— the distinctness of Tarantino’s panache is a slew of self-aware tributes to its cinematic precedents. Like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs before it, Nicolas Winding Refn’s films comprise a classical crime saga, and that concept predates the so-called crime genre ingenuity of the 1990s by over half a century. The first installment, released abroad in 1996, was Refn’s low budget directorial debut, while the sequels, Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands and Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death were filmed more recently with substantially larger budgets. But there is a stylistic similarity shared by all three features that keeps them together as a single body of work. Even as the story shifts from one low-end drug dealer to another before concluding the cycle by honing in on a jaded kingpin, the gritty Copenhagen streets are the real star of the show, and the central themes of corruption and desperation are timeless.

Each part opens with a short character-driven scene, followed by a sequence where each main character is introduced one after another, standing in front of a black background and staring blankly directly at the camera. The music is cheesy hard rock and technique might seem like a contrived shortcut to avoid additional exposition— but it is actually an effect that harkens all the way back to the great 1931 James Cagney vehicle The Public Enemy, and it is startlingly effective. These films have always depended on credibly portraying criminality as a lifestyle, which requires that the central characters are established with distinct individuality, rather than as mere purveyors of brute force.

Writing in the 1950s, culture critic Robert Warshow recognized the gangster as a “tragic hero” who is “doomed because he is under obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful.” The Pusher films are no exception to this cardinal rule. They focus on the fragile nature of aging and maturity as a universal process devoid of sympathy, where each day the work routine gets a little more tiresome, and the desire to settle down with a feeling of accomplishment remains just barely unattainable.

Pusher may be the bleakest of the bunch, suggesting that Refn’s own youthfulness (he was 26 when he directed it) influenced the film’s irate stars. There are few sadder protagonists in current cinema than Frank (Kim Bodnia), a dealer who endlessly bounces from one seedy transaction to another, hopelessly stuck at the bottom of an impenetrable hierarchy. That he inevitably gets himself into trouble when he owes his bosses some major cash is not surprising, but it is a fresh and moving experience to witness him take care of business and accept his mediocre career rather than pursue virtually unattainable success.

Pusher II shifts perspectives, following Frank’s ersatz friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), whose minor role in the first film as a big talker with little to say (especially after Frank “fucked him up”) expands into a full-blown timebomb of neuroses. Mikkelsen is a star performer— his character makes radical decisions and learns to embrace sentimentality without a single literal-minded monologue. Refn frames him in long takes awash in harsh reds and blues that often take on an expressionistic feel. Several scenes build on aspects of Tonny’s personality introduced in Pusher, especially his humorously exaggerated claims of extreme sexual potency. But Pusher II is superior to its predecessor because it suggests, as Tonny gradually accepts his accidental child, that transcendental contentment may have no place in professional dynamics, but could fit in with parenthood.

I’m less a fan of Pusher III, if only because an older gangster with a troubled psyche (Zlatko Buric) unavoidably reeks of Tony Soprano. There is plenty of the dark, brooding aura of the earlier films, but the general sense of frustration is almost too subdued. But given the overarching concept that life is the ultimate developing disaster, it comes as no surprise that the Pusher III ends mundanely, fading away with the universal eventuality of the modern world.

*A version of this review was published this week in the New York Press.


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