Between 1996 and 2005, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn made 3 films that told overlapping stories about a group of scabrous low-level drug dealers in Copenhagen. It is a credit to his talents that we care deeply about his characters, despite their near lack of any redeeming qualities–a testimony once again to the transformative power of art.
At first blush, his films seem to be somewhat derivative of Martin Scorsese. With criminals as anti-heroes and plots that involve vendettas over unpaid debts or a perceived lack of respect, you feel like you have wandered into a Danish version of Little Italy. Once you get beneath the surface, however, you’ll find much more of an affinity with the late Hubert Selby Jr. to whom Refn dedicated “Pusher 2″ in 2004. Selby actually co-wrote the screenplay for Refn’s sole Hollywood production, the 2003 “Fear X”. Like Selby’s classic “Last Exit in Brooklyn,” Refn’s films are devoted to society’s rejects, often by their own choosing. It is a world of petty thieves, drug addicts and sexual deviants that amounts to a hell on earth. Refn, like Selby, descends into this netherworld and becomes the poet laureate of its unlovely denizens. He tells their stories with an economy of means, sardonic wit, and an eagle eye for the telling graphic detail.
“Pusher,” the first in the series, was made in 1996 and starred Kim Bodnia as Frank, a drug dealer with an exotic dancer girlfriend. Both are heavy drug users and argue all the time over money and their relationship. Frank’s has a partner named Tonny who has the word “Respect” tattooed across the back of his shaved head. He looks like a crackhead version of Ali G. Both men seemed to have absorbed the look and the attitude of American gangster rappers but without any particular identification with the African-American identity that spawned it.
Kim Bodnia as Frank
After Frank is approached by an old Swedish prison-mate to score some heroin, he gets the drugs on credit at a wholesale price from Milo (Zlatko Buric), a Serb restaurant-owner and drug-dealer one level higher on the food chain. After the deal with the Swede is consummated, Frank will pay Milo back. As is typical in a Refn film, nothing goes according to plan. Shortly after Frank hooks up with the Swede, the cops show up and chase Frank down the streets of Copenhagen drugs in hand. Running at full-tilt a half-block beyond them, he finally jumps into a park lake and throws the drugs into the water. This effectively destroys the evidence. Unfortunately, it also destroys the capital investment made by Milo, who pressures Frank relentlessly to pay him back for the lost funds and for another old debt.
No doubt showing the influence of the kind of Serbophobia that was running rampant in Western Europe in 1996, Milo and his all-Serbian crew, including the hulking enforcer Radovan, are the perfect villains. However, in keeping with his ability to see past stereotypes, his Milo is also a memorable comic character who keeps insisting to Frank how much he likes him even as he is about to chop off his fingers one by one with pruning shears.
Most of the film consists of Frank trying to stay one step ahead of Milo, looking up customers who owe him money from past drug deals. Milo pressures him and he pressures them in this Hobbesian universe. As the walls begin to close in on Frank, you feel more and more involved with his survival. It is like cheering for the mouse that is being batted about in the paws of a great, grinning cat.
“Pusher II” was made in 2004 and stars Mads Mikkelsen as Tonny, Frank’s erstwhile partner. The film begins with Tonny being released from prison and looking up his father, the “Duke”, who is the boss of a car-theft ring.
Mads Mikkelsen as Tonny
Not soon after they are reunited, Tonny steals a Ferrari and brings it back to his father’s repair shop, which is used as a cover, as an offering. For his efforts, Tonny is chased around the shop by his tire-iron wielding father. Since Ferraris conceal a chip that the cops can hone in on, Tonny has to get rid of the car right away or they will all be busted. As was partially obvious in the 1996 film, and fully on display here, Tonny is somebody who can’t do anything right. If you have seen “Mean Streets,” you will recognize his similarities to John ‘Johnny Boy’ Civello, the character played by Robert De Niro, who also is constantly screwing up. In their worlds, the main knock against Tonny and Johnny Boy is not they are doing wrong, but that they can’t do wrong things right. Incompetence, rather than evil, is the worst failing for the aspiring criminal.
Tonny’s girlfriend Charlotte (Anne Sørensen) gave birth to a boy when Tonny was in prison that she insists he fathered. Since she is a coke addict and a former whore, it is not clear whether her word is any good until a paternity test determines that he is indeed the father. All she wants from him is a few extra dollars since emotional support is the last thing on earth that this drug-addled woman is interested in. At a debauched party thrown by the Duke at the climax of the film, she puts the baby aside while she consumes mammoth amounts of blow. No matter how little people think of Tonny, starting with himself, his devotion to his baby son redeems him in the closing moments of the film. In keeping with Refn’s absolute disdain for conventional melodrama, there is no indication that the child or the father has a future. We are instead left with some stolen moments as father and son stand together against a heartless world.
In the climactic “Pusher 3,” it is Milo’s turn to become the unlucky mouse. As a middle-man between two drug-dealing gangs, he is forced to play both sides against each other as he attempts to sell 10,000 Ecstasy pills–a commodity that he is utterly unfamiliar with.
At this stage in his life, he seems far more interested in running his restaurant and being a caring father to his daughter Milena (Marinela Dekic), whose wedding he is catering. Most of the final third of the film consists of him trying to cook meals for the wedding guests while he tries to unload the Ecstasy pills. It is very obviously a reprise of the final scenes of “Goodfellas” as the main character tries to cook lasagna for a dinner party while setting up a big drug deal.
Zlatko Buric as Milo
As Milo has grown older and less intimidating, his younger rivals have lost their fear of him, especially Little Mohammed (Ilyas Agac) who bullies and hectors him throughout the film until Milo is ready to explode. Milo finally decides to stand up to Little Mohammed and a couple of his Polish henchmen after they begin to beat a Polish woman they have forced into prostitution at his restaurant. In keeping with Refn’s astute refusal to indulge in facile moralizing, it is never clear that Milo’s action is meant to rescue the woman or to put an end to the rival gang members’ commandeering of his personal space. Whatever his motivation, you can only feel that he is doing the right thing in a world in which morality counts for very little.
After he kills Little Mohammed, Milo is forced to look up Radovan, his henchman of yore, who has given up the criminal life and opened up a shish kebab restaurant on the outskirts of Copenhagen. The final scene consists of the two men disposing of Little Mohammed’s body, played for dark comic effect.
The Pusher Trilogy films are available from Netflix and get my strong recommendation.