Nicolas Winding Refn's (Drive, Bronson) masterful Danish Pusher Trilogy chronicles the lives of scumbags - imbuing them with complex emotions, personalities and motivations. Each film is told across a number of days, the first being more literal in this regard. Each uses some key characters to connect the loose and simple story of 'pushing' or drug dealing, and across the three films, many years have passed. Refn made the first film before moving onto other projects, in particular the below-average Fear X which bankrupted his company. As a response he released two more Pusher-themed films in the space of a year to great success. These films were not meant to be, but luckily we got them as they turned out just as good if not better than the original.
Pusher begins with a claustrophobic chase camera that pursues low level dealer Frank (Kim Bodnia) as he spends a hellish week (the film is constructed on a day-by-day chronology) trying to amend a botched drug deal. His friend Tonny (the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen) accompanies him as they commit small time crimes and discuss perverse things Pulp Fiction style. It is quickly learned that Frank has dealings and of course owes money to drug lord Milo (Zlatko Buric). After things go pear-shaped Frank's debts escalate and through his increasingly poor and destructive decisions his life unravels around him.
It was initially surprising to learn that Tonny has little weight to the story, as he is such a character but it is forgiven considering the complex relations Frank carries on with the ruthless Milo and estranged relations he has with his girlfriend Vic.
Kim Bodnia as Frank carries the film to its excellent conclusion, the minimal sound score underpins the tick of the clock as days pass with little action and the tension begins to ramp both in his private life and the efforts of browbeating and moneymaking that consistently go awry. There is freshness in Pusher that is ahead of its time, the film was made in 1996 but it could have been made today, on a budget. No scene is wasted and every interaction is meaningful, as through Frank's actions we can glimpse his inner workings. This is particularly evident in the excellent conclusion, laying threads bare we can glimpse everything in Frank's desperate face.
Eight years later and Refn releases Pusher II: With Blood on my Hands. Frank is nowhere to be found, only mentioned once and the under-utilized Tonny from the first film takes center stage. Mads Mikkelsen really displays his acting chops here, just released from prison Tonny goes to work for his father's business of car dealing and modification - illegal of course but a step-up from pushing, or so he thinks.
Pusher II is definitely the best film of the trilogy, focusing on complex familial relations as Tonny struggles not only with the same sort of threatening debt that Frank owed Milo, but with the possibility of being a father and getting constantly undermined from everyone around him, as the back of his tattooed head (respect) constantly reminds us. It seems Frank left an impression on Tonny from their last altercation and his memory suffers as a result. Tonny works for his father but it is not long before he gets involved in a wrong deal, strangely also concerning an older and more subdued Milo. Like the first film this comes to an unexpected head, but it is once again the tension and uniquely desperate situation that Tonny is in that is so riveting to watch.
The third film Pusher III: I'm The Angel of Death made one year later is a total departure from the two pushers' stories, instead focusing completely on Milo, an unknown amount of years later on the eve of his daughter's birthday. He has different struggles, including maintaining leadership in a new market of savvy younger dealers and new drugs, including ecstasy, he is also trying to quit doping and cooks as a distraction in the dilapidated club he runs with his skeleton crew.
As a Pusher film you wait with bated breath for shit to hit the fan, but Refn is teasing us here, and this is the slowest burn of the three, with unpredictably messy results.
All three films are masterful in their own right, and aside from the litany of characters presented in the credits, they can be successfully viewed individually. There are noticeable themes in all three films however that I would be remiss to not touch upon. The first most obvious one is impotence. All three protagonists brag about their strength, position in life and virility but in Pusher, Frank refuses to touch Vic his live-in girlfriend, and it is not really clear why save for his excessive drug use. In Pusher II there is an explicit scene that follows Tonny bragging about oral sex, that takes place in a brothel. Hardcore pornography and two prostitutes try to arouse him to no success. In Pusher III Milo seems to have a dejected relationship with his daughter, but other than this he neither mentions, nor engages in any sexual acts during the film. Perhaps this follows the struggle Tonny has in Pusher II regarding his familial responsibilities but ultimate failure as a man to provide stability - the same pain Milo feels for his daughter and that Frank feels for his girlfriend.
The second theme is frustration, and each in film there are key scenes that stunningly reveal the intense frustration and deflation of ego all three protagonists experience. The look on Frank's face, the pacing and increasingly anti-social behavior from Tonny in an overlong sequence at a wedding party that has to be seen to be believed, and Milo's distracting methods of cooking, doping and reading newspapers during pivotal moments when action should be taken are all explosive scenes that enhance the Pusher story.
All three films have basic elements of Refn's style that are arguably fully exploited in his film Bronson. The difference here is his stylistic flair such as brightly lit neon rooms and sizzling electro-rock score are used to very minimal effect and the characters take center stage.
Pusher is a grey world, not one without hope but one that is an ensnaring trap that has caught the protagonists in their grip as they witness stability, but ultimately influence and are influenced by the corruption and crime that proliferates their lives and poisons their opportunities.
The Pusher Trilogy is out now in Australia on DVD thanks to Accent - Link here