Fifteen years before Nicholas Winding Refn thrilled audiences with the genre-inspired hit Drive, he kicked off his career with Pusher; the first entry in an eventual triptych focused on the misfortunes of street-level drug dealers in Copenhagen. Looking at the Pusher trilogy now, it's possible to trace Refn's rapid advancement as he learned the tools of his trade, accumulating the distinctive flourishes (especially those based in lighting, cutting and camera placement) that characterize his work to this day.
In his first film, Refn relays the tale of Frank (Kim Bodnia), a bottom-rung dealer who owes money to Milo (Zlatko Buric), a local drug lord who's just as likely to call you his friend as he is to order his muscle to go to work on you. Despite having delayed payment on a prior loan, Frank convinces Milo to front him a large amount of heroin, certain that he's on the verge of a lucrative sale to an old acquaintance from his prison days. The police intervene before Frank can make the exchange, leaving him in the lurch--without the dope or the money--and hopelessly in debt to Milo.
Pusher is a gritty, downward spiral of a tale, captured in a visual style that reminds one of a television police procedural; Morten Søborg's handheld camerawork seems unafraid of swooping into dark corners where dark ambiance is sometimes favored over fine image detail. This run-and-gun shooting strategy places Frank and his accomplice Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) in a dismal world filled with obstacles; the largest barrier to success being their own stupidity.
That last detail is worth hammering home: these are not the brightest or most likeable of characters, although Refn never foregrounds such judgments. Frank and Tonny's conversations may reflect a post-Pulp Fiction, criminals-are-everyday-people-too aesthetic, but the dialogue never crackles with the confidence and panache displayed by Tarantino's iconic thugs. It's not because Refn couldn't necessarily pen such dialogue but, rather, because his characters aren't intended to be read as closet intellectuals. They're misogynistic, boorish and unpleasantly base fellows through and through.
Pusher is essentially a neo-noir where the set of circumstances visited upon Frank feel earned, rather than the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After spending the first half of the film watching Frank make awful choices, there's a righteous thrill in seeing him being dealt the consequences. The film tells the tale of one man's ruination. And Refn invites us to smugly watch as Frank's life story goes south.
Pusher will screen at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) on March 8 & 9th at 7pm. The film is part of the retrospective series, Driven: The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn.
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Fear X
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Drive
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