Originally released nearly a decade ago in its native Denmark, Pusher is a breathtaking film. Planned as an independent, no-budget feature by director Nicolas Winding Refn, the project changed shape when Balboa Films offered him financing: Gone are the 16mm film and the amateur actors, replaced by vivid color and seasoned professionals. What remains, however, is Refn's sensibility, and the resulting work -- his feature debut as a director -- is an enthralling combination of the shocking, the sensational and the matter-of-fact.
Pusher tells the story of a terrible week in the life of Frank (Kim Bodnia), a small-time drug dealer. When times are good, Frank spends almost all of his time with Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), his right-hand man and apparent best friend; Tonny is the classic street tough who looks much harder -- manic grin, "RESPECT" tattooed on the back of his shaved head -- than he acts. On the best of days, the two drive around laughing, talking about women and selling drugs to people so beaten-down they live in terror of displeasing Frank and Tonny; on the worst days, there is bloodshed, fear and betrayal. As the week begins, the friends go about their everyday business, doing deals here and there and traveling the city like care-free kids, joking and taking real pleasure in their mutual friendship. In addition to working as a unit, the two party together as well, boozing with the same good-humored grumbling that helps them through the day. There is, however, the minor issue of 50,000 Kroner Frank owes Milo (Zlatko Buric), his Yugoslav supplier, but both Milo and his muscle Radovan (Slavko Labovic) seem willing to let Frank pay later, particularly when they're promised a big profit on the sale of heroin to a prison acquaintance of Frank's. In the middle of delivering the drugs, however, Frank is spotted by the police; he flees and gets rid of the evidence by dumping it into the river, thus saving himself from charges of both possession and intent to distribute. The problem is that he is left without either drugs or money, and finds himself in a very bad situation where Milo is concerned.
This, essentially, is the set-up of Pusher: It's simple, straight-forward, cut-and-dried. And, in a way, so is the movie. Not concerned with glorifying or condemning Frank's world, the film is simply a look inside the day-to-day processes of his life. And, contrary to what is depicted in most crime films, a lot of Frank's life is boring. Like any other working man, he's got a lot of routines, both verbal and physical: He sees the same people every day, goes through the same actions, has the same conversations. And there's nothing extraordinary about him -- it's clear very early in Pusher that the movie could have focused on one of hundreds of other men in Frank's world, and would have differed only in its minor details. Frank is just another guy, trying to get by.
And, ultimately, that's what makes the film so powerful. Thanks in equal part of Refn's self-control as a director and an extraordinary performance by Kim Bodia, Frank comes across as weary and confused, worn out by the daily demands of his existence. Just barely into his 30s when the film was made, Bodia seems older, like a middle-aged man realizing he'll be stuck in the same, mind-numbing job for the next thirty years. There's an air of something like melancholy hanging over the mostly expressionless Frank, and it infuses everything he does with a hint of regret. There's also a surprising, subtle vulnerability to Frank; he's confrontational only when he has no choice, and never seems to get the pleasure out of violence that those in his line of work often do. He's also unexpectedly generous, and can't help feeling sympathy for the pathetic junkies he serves. And he's secretly thoughtful, spending much of his time alone agonizing over his relationship with "champagne girl" Vic (Laura Drasbæk), seemingly reminding himself over and over again that she's no better than a prostitute, and that he has no feelings for her beyond an appreciation of her willingness to suck him off. He relishes the few moments of lightness in his life, and even as his situation with Milo worsens, he's able to have a quiet, personal conversation with Radovan about the other's dreams of a life outside of crime. It's an unusual, completely convincing moment, and yet another sign of the maturity of the film's then 25-year-old director.
Refn directs his film with a remarkably assured hand, exercising self-control that will drive the legion of state-side Tarantino devotees mad. Instead of pumping up colors, violence and personalities, Refn takes the opposite approach, rendering his most tension-filled moments so subdued they're almost deadpan. That's not to say, however, that there aren't screams of terror and howls of pain in Pusher, just that they're shot with the same observant, hand-held camera as the rest of the film; Refn's camera (manned by Morten Søborg) is a passive accomplice that does nothing but watch, and accept.
There are, however, a few occasions on which Refn is willing to relax his control slightly, and it is those scenes that change Pusher from a very good film into one that is truly great. The comparative flights of fancy are stunning -- not because of their content, but rather because of their timing. Eschewing the desire of most directors to emphasize violence and strength, Refn instead makes tiny, memorable moments out of friendship; brief kernels of bonding that the characters themselves probably don't even notice are wrapped up by the director into gorgeous little packages of light and sound, and left to fester in our minds even as the movie itself leaves them behind. The moment of drunken pleasure in a bar during which Tonny and Frank bond over flirting, a lazy knife-fight and a sudden kiss, is so overwhelming that it is actually difficult to drag oneself back into the film which, with Refn's customary focus, has moved on to other things.
Magnolia Films is releasing the Pusher Trilogy in a few theaters around the country over the coming weeks, starting in New York's Village Cinema on Friday. In these limited screenings, the films will be shown back-to-back, allowing American viewers to see them in a single sitting for the first time. As only the first in the series is available on DVD in the US, anyone living near one of the theaters would be wise to take advantage of this opportunity. Look for our review of Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands tomorrow, and Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death on Friday.