Pusher (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996) – Drug dealer Frank incurs a huge debt from a botched deal, leaving him on bad terms with a brutal kingpin.
Brutality, both physical and moral, manifests in a distinctive visual experience of Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmic underworld.
In 2011, Drive came to attention. Channelling Travis Bickle in his brooding mechanic, The Driver’s vengeance-fuelled road trip made dozens sit up for director Nicolas Winding Refn’s next venture. Only God Forgives however, proved divisive. Save for the leading man and art-house feel, the follow-up is a different beast. Less a narrative than a practice in experiential surrealism, its fantastical mystic is charm to some and perplexing to Gary Oldman.
This is not entirely new for Refn. His earliest brilliance with Pusher relies on similar hyperreal visuals, if only held back by risks of a debut and a finite budget. Striking as with Valhalla Rising, Refn strongly defines his presence in the cinematic underworld, replete with copious style. The hallucinogenic trip through criminal alleyways can either alienate or fascinate, with nihilism disguised in distinct aesthetics.
Along with Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands and Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death, the trilogy documents three interconnected stories of three drug dealers, whose lives continually spin out of control due to the choices they make. Documenting their struggles for survival when they hit the skid, the hostile underworld of Copenhagen is seen through a gritty fever dream.
The circle of morally grey characters is a hard sell. They have few redeeming qualities and little cause for sympathy. Yet, their footing on the bottom rung of the ladder demands understanding over pity. Condemned to the vicious cycle of the underworld, these are criminal underdogs who are unable to escape, no matter their intentions or drive.
This little-seen perspective makes for dark viewing that is no doubt disturbing in parts. The ultra-violence is necessarily relentless. In Frank (Kim Bodnia), Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) and Milo (Zlatko Buric), brilliant lead performances add to rare realism in a story heavy on reflective quietude.
Pressed into committing belligerent acts for the sole sake of survival, the anti-heroes has the audience rooting for their fortuity and motivations. Highly original despite heavy Scorsese influences, Pusher draws out an intriguing spark in the circumstances that corner the criminals into a desperate cul-de-sac.