REVIEW: DVD Release: Pusher

Film: Pusher
Release date: 24th July 2000
Certificate: 18
Running time: 105 mins
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Kim Bodnia, Zlatko Buric, Laura Drasbæk, Slavko Labovic, Mads Mikkelsen
Genre: Crime/Thriller
Studio: Metrodome
Format: DVD
Country: Denmark

All too often when referring to crime films, words like gritty or raw get used to describe what usually turns out to be nothing of the sort. For the especially low-down-and-dirty forays into the underworld, we are even treated to words like grimy and uncompromising. The Brit-crime thriller seems to have cornered the market in this area, but we needn’t travel too far to find a film that truly embodies these tags.

Frank is a small-time dealer in Copenhagen who, along with his buddy, Tonny, deals heroin for boss Milo. When Milo supplies a large amount of heroin to Frank to sell to an old friend from jail, Frank agrees to bring his money within two hours.

With the deal about to go through, the police show up, and Frank disposes of the heroin. Taken into custody, but released soon after, Frank must get Milo the money he promised in two days. But Frank will have to travel to hell to raise the cash, and he’ll have to test himself to the very limit…

Pusher is the debut of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, known to English speaking audiences for Bronson and Valhalla Rising. It is a no-frills tale of a true criminal, unrepentant, and yet fascinating to follow in his descent into the hellish depths of the Copenhagen underworld. Refn uses hand-held cameras to literally follow the characters around, as though we were seeing an observational documentary, such is the level that we get drawn in to the action. This approach might seem a little well worn, and the gritty street-level drama of petty criminals and drug dealers is a path we’ve walked before. There is more than a hint of Mean Streets about this film, but to its credit, Pusher manages to feel new and exciting, largely down to the truly superb cast, and a director who gets the best from them.

In the central role of Frank, Kim Bodnia delivers a captivating performance, simmering with tension. From the very start, we are aware that Frank is an unlikeable character. He’s a drug dealer, his treatment of women is disrespectful at best, and his main concern in life is money and having a good time. He is also a man who rarely succumbs to his emotions, preferring instead to be cool and calculating. It would be easy for such a character to lack charisma, but Bodnia portrays Frank, and his descent, with such devotion and moral ambiguity that we are hooked. The release of emotion comes too rarely for Frank, and we are left watching a lit fuse that is a constant threat. So strong is the incendiary threat that we are unable to tear our gaze from him whenever he is on screen. This performance of hidden intensity gives Pusher another level, beyond the limitations of the genre. When we do see Frank commit acts of violence, it is ugly and brutal, but it happens so rarely that the film is carried along simply by the threat that Frank could at any minute completely break down, and it is all the more effective for it. The crumbling of Frank’s world leads him down a road that there is no returning from, and Bodnia’s portrayal is compelling enough to make us follow him there.

Bodnia’s performance is not the only standout. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, and populate the bleak canvas with unforgettable characters. Zlato Buric, as crime boss Milo, gives an entertaining performance, luring us in with his likable drawl, laid-back posture and bad cooking, before showing us his true sociopathic colours. Mads Mikkelsen, as the unpredictable Tonny, could easily have turned the character into a genre stereotype, but instead brings him vividly to life. Finally, Laura Drasbaek as the beautiful but tormented Vic is superb, and brings real pathos to what could have been a thankless and cosmetic part.

On the surface, it wouldn’t appear that there is much to like about Pusher, but the characters are so well written and multi-faceted that it doesn’t take much effort on our part to see that there is more beneath the obvious genre clichés. Too often audiences are force fed a story of redemption to sweeten the bitterness of the preceding events, but not here. Here we are shown unrepentant characters, caught up in their own worlds, and the consequences when these worlds are at odds with each other. The final shot of Frank does not show a man regretting the life he has led, but instead accepting the inevitable conclusion his life has led him to. Despite several clues as to what will happen to Frank, the film abruptly ends, leaving us with a similar feeling of acceptance.

Not content with wrapping things up neatly, Pusher ends much as it began, without frills or ceremony. By leaving the characters arcs unfinished, Refn has ensured that Pusher lives on beyond the end credits, and our descent into the depths of criminality is a journey that we are not able to forget easily.

Gritty, grimy, grisly, raw, uncompromising; take your pick. Pusher is a powerful piece of filmmaking that doesn’t deserve to be tagged so simply. It gives us the sort of undiluted look at criminal life that we rarely get to see in other films. Simply shot and compellingly performed, it deserves serious attention, and to be ranked alongside the likes of Mean Streets. RM

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