Nicolas Winding Refn, “Pusher” (1996)
Just managed to catch this film last night after seeing a video copy for loan in a video rent shop earlier in the day. This is a gritty and very distressing snapshot of a week in the life of a small-time middle-man heroin dealer, Frank (Kim Bodnia), in an unnamed inner-city district in Copenhagen, in Denmark. Early in the film, Frank meets Swedish ex-con Hasse to set up a large drug deal. Frank goes to see his boss Milo (Zlatko Buric) to get the heroin; he already owes Milo about 50,000 kroner but Milo lets him take the heroin provided that he return immediately with the money plus what he owes. As luck would have it, as Frank goes with Hasse to conduct the exchange, they cross paths with the police, forcing Frank to flee and jump into a lake where he dumps the heroin. He ends up spending the next 24 hours in the slammer during which time he is told his friend and usual partner-in-crime Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) set him up. On leaving jail, Frank seeks out Tonny in a pub and vents his rage on him severely with a baseball bat. (Why are baseball bats always the first choice of weapon to beat up people?) Leaving Tonny unconscious and bleeding, Frank visits Milo who refuses to believe his story about his 24-hour absence and increases the amount Frank owes him – 170,000 kroner to 230,000 kroner including the past 50,000 kroner – which must be paid by the end of the week. From this point on, Frank calls on all his clients to demand money, becoming more and more frustrated and violent when they can’t pay up, and at the same time trying to placate his prostitute girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbaek) and working out ways he can trick or evade Milo and his right-hand man Radovan (Slavko Labovic).
Milo does relent somewhat and tells Frank he will accept a token payment and forget all the other debts to end their quarrel. You’d think at this point Frank should be glad and be able to relax and think more clearly but then he tells Vic he won’t be going to Spain as they had planned so she steals all the money he had collected from some bodybuilders in a gym and flees. The last we see of Frank, he is waiting for Milo’s men and the bodybuilders to pounce on him all at once.
Shot entirely on a hand-held video-recorder, the film has a strong documentary or news article feel which gives it an air of “authenticity”. Much of the action and dialogue may well have been improvised though of course the scenes of violence and drug-taking will have been staged. Funnily, night-time and interior scenes during night seem a lot more real and hard-edged, probably because in the outdoor day-time scenes there is that soft natural light often seen in Scandinavian films, unaffected by air pollution and enhanced by open spaces and the distinctive clean lines of Scandinavian architecture and design, which endows people and objects with a purity and innocence they don’t need. At the time “Pusher” was being made, people were getting excited about the Dogme 95 manifesto that a few Danish directors including Lars von Trier had written up and signed to, and which was invigorating film-making in Denmark by laying down particular rules and restrictions that actually opened new ways of seeing and thinking about film scripting and direction. The film does look a little like a Dogme 95 film but the manifesto’s rules prohibited the use of weapons and did not allow murder to occur in any of the films made under its directions; some of the music used in the film also breaks the manifesto rule about not using music unless it happens to be part of the background scenery anyway.
The drug-dealer life-style portrayed here is unglamorous and degrading: the never-ending search for money to pay off outstanding debts and the stress, frustration, anger and violence that accompany it, along with the wreckage of friendships betrayed and love abused, strip people like Frank of their humanity as much as a job in a sweatshop factory in India, in a Chinese coal-mine or in other places recycling and chopping up discarded laptops, breathing in poisonous fumes, would do. There is a curious code of conduct that Frank and the other dealers follow, one based on people’s desire, however superficial or self-serving, to meet outstanding debt and other obligations, which helps to generate much of the tension, aggression and violence seen. A poignant and hilarious moment comes when Radovan admits to Frank that he’d like to get out of the junk-dealing business and open a restaurant as he loves to cook, and that Milo loves making cakes and dreams of owning a bakery. One lesson here is that any young person with ideas of making it big and acquiring easy riches and girlfriends in the world of drug-trafficking, or dealing in heroin anyway, ought to see this film to be disabused of such notions.
As Frank, Bodnia puts up a first-rate performance as a grubby criminal: you can’t help but sympathise with him and even root for him a bit in spite of often impulsive and self-defeating actions as he spirals lower and lower in a trap partly of his own making, a trap that squeezes him more and more to the point where he is totally stranded with no options or life-lines, and time is fast running out on him. The actors playing Milo and Radovan are notable as well, injecting some humanity, played for laughs, into their characters but Bodnia outshines the whole cast by far.
The plot may not be original and the treatment of the drug dealers as ordinary human beings with aspirations like the rest of us – why, even drug pushers might want to be on MasterChef programs! – may have been done over and over in past films. As an unflinching study of a character caught in an extreme situation by his own actions and those of others, and behaving in ways that drag him lower and lower and sap his strength, “Pusher” is hard to beat. There is no examination of Frank’s motives or why he chose to go into the business in the first place but that might have stalled the action of what basically is a brief view of how small-time dealers go about their work. While the film’s budget does not allow Refn to examine the wider Danish society and its attitude to drugs – after all, making drugs illegal drives them underground, encouraging the kind of criminal activity seen in “Pusher” – we do get something of the overall social indifference to people like Frank and Vic in the scene where Frank is being interviewed by the police: one officer insultingly tosses lollies at Frank while he is sitting mum and refusing to answer questions from the other officer.
I definitely recommend this film as a psychological character study of how an individual might react when caught in an increasingly difficult situation with no hope of escape. It’s like watching a fly zoom accidentally into a spider’s web and struggle for all it’s worth while the spider homes in on its vibrations for the kill; a certain voyeuristic thrill to see whether the victim can escape its fate in spite of the very heavy odds stacked against it comes out of that and so it is also with “Pusher”. Can Frank succeed against all the odds or will he crack up at the last minute?