Nicholas Winding Refn is a Danish director with a strong Western influence. Tackling a wide variety of genres, he has slowly moved from his native Denmark into Hollywood. With his American debut, Drive, due out later this year, it remains to be seen if Winding Refn can tackle the big budgets of Hollywood as successfully as he has utilised the smaller budgets in his homeland, epitomised in his debut, Pusher – the first ever Danish gangster drama.
The film chronicles a week in the life of Frank (Kim Bodnia), a small time drug dealer in the town of Istegarde, Denmark. Frank spends his days dealing heroin with his friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) and visiting Vic (Laura Drasbæk), a prostitute who stores his drugs for him.
A former cellmate of Frank appears and offers him a big drug deal with a big payout. Frank goes to the local kingpin, Milo (Zlatko Buric), and his fearsome henchman, Radovan (Slavko Labovic), to acquire the drugs needed. The deal goes wrong and Frank loses the drugs during a police bust. Released without charge, Frank is left with no drugs, no money and a heavy debt to Milo that needs to be paid.
As the week progresses, Frank’s actions take him deeper and deeper into debt and desperation as he struggles to find the money needed to spare his life…
Pusher is a gritty film, documenting the lows and none of the highs of criminal life. The loose, hand-held camerawork gives the film an almost documentary feel as we follow and watch with horror at the disastrous decisions Frank makes again and again. The film eschews any glamour or sense of cool that is normally associated with crime films focusing on the criminal side of the law. There is no rise and fall, only the fall, as Frank starts to doubt his place in life just as it all begins to fall apart.
The film itself has an inescapable grain to the picture.
The locations are all dingy flats, greasy cafes or loud, brash nightclubs. The film itself has an inescapable grain to the picture, giving everything a slightly desaturated grimy feel. The one spark of colour comes from the blood spatter from a shotgun to the head. It is a rare moment of beauty in amongst the grime. The use of natural or low lighting means some scenes are cast in shadow, faces masked by low lighting. The obvious budget constraints show that the director had to rely on substance over style. These constraints add to the realistic feel of the film, the naturalistic lighting and hand-held camera allowing us to follow Frank as if we were a documentary crew chronicling his downfall.
The story is the atypical fall from grace for a criminal. The naturalistic style of shooting and acting allows an immersion in the world created. When you consider this was the director’s debut film, it is hard not to compare it to the infamous first offerings from Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, both of whom chose crime as the genre, but both heavily stylised. The restraint in Pusher helps distinguish itself as a distinctively European film and does not suffer for it.
The performances are universally solid, with Tonny (played by Mads Mikkelsen, before his profile soared thanks to Casino Royale) and Radovan (played by Slavko Labovic) exceptional in their small yet important roles. One scene in particular stands out, where Radovan drives Frank to collect some money, laughing and joking as they travel before he turns in an instant into a frightening figure of menace.
The first in a trilogy, Pusher shows the skill of director Nicolas Winding Refn. Dropping out of film school to make this, the film is an assured debut. Winding Refn has gone on to make more stylish films, such as Bronson (2008), and is now working in Hollywood. Pusher is a more subdued than these later films but lacks none of the skill he has gone on to display.
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