“I didn’t do anything wrong.” —Frank, Pusher
In the alternate moral universe of the Pusher trilogy, a micro-epic docudrama about the Copenhagen drug scene from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, Frank (Kim Bodnia), the lowly dope dealer in the series’ first entry, is correct: He didn’t do anything wrong. Throughout the trilogy, Refn focuses acutely on various minor or semi-major players in the drug trade without broadening his scope to the pernicious effects of drugs and criminality in society-at-large; in that sense, it’s like the inverse of The Wire, deliberately avoiding “the big picture” in order to examine the desperate choices made by people who operate in the underworld. A character like Frank might seem a bottom-feeding scumbag in any other context, but here he becomes a victim of circumstance, someone with the misfortune of getting into big-time trouble and the larger misfortune of not being able to get out it, despite his best efforts. In short, he does his job, but it’s dead-end work.
Busting onto the scene at 26-year-old, Refn made his directorial debut with 1996’s Pusher and, after squandering his money and reputation on the 2003 English-language thriller Fear X, returned eight years later to capitalize on the first film’s emerging cult status with Pusher 2: With Blood On My Hands and Pusher 3: I’m The Angel Of Death. Despite the decade-long gap between the first and the last entry, the trilogy has a cohesive street-level visual style and running themes about honor, family, and the cruel vicissitudes of fate, but each one has distinct resonances that build off an intense study of single characters and the crises that gnaw at their consciences while forcing them into dreadful corners. At their best, the Pusher films resembles the doom-filled day-in-the-life segment of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, where a coke-fueled Ray Liotta scrambles to get things done as his fortunes rapidly circle the drain. (In apparent homage, Refn even has Milo (Zlatco Buric), the Serbian druglord at the center of the third one, preparing food for a large get-together, though Liotta’s looks decidedly more delectable. Or at least less likely to carry food-borne illness.)
It’s likely that Frank, for one, knows Goodfellas by heart—not that it does him any good, mind. Early in Pusher, we get a glimpse of Frank’s shithole apartment, which is papered with stills from Scarface and Taxi Driver and the poster for Enter The Dragon, all signposts for the sort of badassery that he might have once wished to emulate but can’t. Instead, his days are filled with dangerous hassles: Suppliers who hold him in constant debt, deadbeat junkies who beg him for product they can’t afford, and the lingering threat of a drug bust. And it doesn’t help that his wingman is Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), a gangly, reckless man-child with a tattoo on the back of his head that reads “RESPECT”—only the most obvious sign that he’s about as gangsta as Ali G. Over a seven-day period, all of these factors come to a head when the authorities catch him in a sting operation. The good news: They don’t have anything on him. The bad news: Well, here’s the clip…
Lest newcomers to the Pusher trilogy worry they’re in for another Trainspotting knockoff, sequences like the one above are anomalous in the trilogy, especially as it unfolds and Refn grows more confident in presenting the matter-of-fact, businesslike ruthlessness of the game as is. His latest film, the Kubrickian biopic Bronson, about England’s most violent prisoner, proves he has style to burn, but he wisely keeps such excesses in check, especially in the latter two entries, which are visually arresting without the need for look-ma-it’s-me flash. At times, Refn’s handheld, over-the-shoulder camera work resembles the Dardenne brothers—and the second entry, with its tragic theme of fathers and sons, recalls the Dardennes’ The Son and L’Enfant, though it predates the latter. But he also has a great feel for the seedy bars, nightclubs, warehouses, and restaurants where transactions go down. There’s a dread-soaked ambiance to the Pusher films, but Refn doesn’t lay it on too thick; the characters are in so much hot water already, there’s no need to underline it.
Of the central players in the Pusher films—Frank in the first, Tonny in the second, and Milo in the third—Frank is easily the least colorful, no more than an ordinary palooka trying to hustle his way out of trouble. But the fact that he isn’t a fuck-up of Tonny-like proportions drives home the helplessness of his predicament. Getting pinched by the cops is the beginning of the end for him; no matter what he does, there’s no way he can crawl out of that hole, but his survival instincts lead him to try anyway. He talks Milo’s henchmen into granting him reprieve after reprieve, he squeezes every last dollar from his deadbeat customers, he pawns off his jewelry and personal effect, and, in a scene that aches with humiliation and shame, he cajoles his estranged mother into a few extra bucks. No matter. He can do everything right, and he still owes.
In Pusher 2: With Blood On My Hands, the most affecting entry in the series, Tonny returns to the scene nearly as deep in the hole and the poor bastard just can’t stop digging. Almost 10 years and a jail stint later, Tonny’s “RESPECT” tattoo is looking more regrettable than ever, now that he’s aged past the excuse of youth impetuousness. Tonny isn’t level-headed or reliable enough to work a legitimate job even if he wanted to, but isn’t street-smart, either, so he gets kicked around by two-bit crooks who don’t abide the tattoo. Foremost among them is his father (Leif Sylvester), a car thief who reluctantly brings Tonny back into the fold, but treats his chief henchman Ø (Øyvind Hagen-Traberg) more like a son than his flesh and blood. (His dad’s speech at Ø’s wedding reception—a hilariously tacky bacchanal with strippers and cocaine and fistfights—drives that point home explicitly.) At the same time, Tonny himself has become a father, which is both cruelly ironic (given that he’s impotent) and bracing to him on a primal level. Much as he balks at taking a paternity test and fights with the mother, whose coke habit undermines her own fitness as a parent, Tonny must face the obvious question: Will he be like his dad or will he break the cycle? And then there’s the more complicated question: If he’s so inept at everything else, could he be a decent father even if he wanted to be?
As Tonny, Mads Mikkelsen nails the image of a long-in-the-tooth punk who has aged beyond the point where his screw-ups can be written off as the follies of youth. The closest antecedent I can think of is Ziggy Sobotka on The Wire, though unlike Ziggy, Tonny’s father suggests no love or responsibility for him; he just gets kicked around and kicked around until the reckless moment he decides to take control of his life. Like the other films in the trilogy, With Blood On My Hands luxuriates in the details of criminal life, here showing the ins-and-outs of fencing stolen cars while aligning Tonny with yet another dim-witted dealer who goes into hock with the pitiless Milo. But Tonny’s misadventures inevitably circle back around to family, an issue that he does everything he can to dodge—from begging off the paternity test to entering a cold, begrudging partnership with a father who couldn’t care less about him—but he eventually faces head-on, to emotionally devastating results on all fronts. “Hopeful” would not be the right word to describe what happens in the end, but it’s the first time in the movie that love transcends greed, selfishness, and the ruthless pragmatism of a dirty business.
For a series caught up in the frantic scramble of dealers trying to stay afloat in a treacherous environment, Pusher saves its biggest high-wire act for last. After painting Milo as the mirthless king of the Copenhagen dope trade in the first two movies, Refn audaciously challenges our preconceptions with Pusher 3: I’m The Angel Of Death, which asserts that even the men at the top of the food chain are fated to fall and fall hard. Just like with any other business, a successful drug dealer has to evolve with the times and the times catch the middle-aged Milo flat-footed, easy pickings for ambitious young hoods who have a better sense of the market. Accustomed to pushing heroin, Milo doesn’t know what to do with a box of Ecstasy tablets; he can’t figure out how to price it or who to trust with dealing it, and he makes the near-fatal mistake of not sampling the product first. It’s like the narcotic equivalent of the proverbial “kids these days” codger—he fundamentally doesn’t understand it and never will.
Milo’s troubles with the Ecstasy business are just one part of his impossible juggling act: He’s also slipping in and out of Narcotics Anonymous meetings for his lingering heroin addiction, cooking for the 50 people invited to his daughter’s 25th birthday party, and improvising his way through a situation that involves two thugs and the Polish teenager they’re selling into prostitution. The wily veteran ambles his way through it—thanks to his good buddy heroin and a clean-up guy who owes him a favor—but the surprise of I’m The Angel Of Death is how Refn so swiftly realigns our sympathies. Keep in mind, this is the same Milo who had no trouble zapping Frank’s nipples with electrical wire in Pusher or laying out plastic tarp for his disposal. And while Refn isn’t shooting for warmth, exactly, he reveals how even a major player like Milo is vulnerable to a precipitous fall from grace.
Though not without scenes of shocking violence and abuse, the Pusher trilogy goes about its business with a bare minimum of crime-movie sensationalism. While they’re operating at different places on the food chain, the common denominator between Frank, Tonny, and Milo is that they all have to face a narrowing set of options. And that’s where the Pusher movies get some distance from the glamorous empire-building of Scarface, Brian De Palma’s typically perverse subversion of the immigrant-makes-good story. “The world is yours,” was the tagline for Scarface. The tagline for Pusher? “You don’t have a chance. Seize it!”
Next week: The Stepfather (1987)
October 22: Army Of Shadows
October 29: Ginger Snaps
November 5: Hedwig And The Angry Inch