At its core, the brilliant film ‘Pusher’ is about men and the things they do to maintain their manhood. In today’s society, men can show affection in war and football. They have their brothers-in-arms to lean on when times get tough. Knives are drawn and bullets fly, but all the violence makes one wonder: Who’s being hurt more, the guy shooting or the guy being shot?
In ‘Pusher,’ these showdowns happen as much inside a man as they do outside of him. Director Refn’s prognosis for the state of manhood is grim, but one thing is clear: when the chips are down, even the most stone-faced men will beg for their lives.
Frank (Kim Bodnia, “Rosewater”) is a low-level Copenhagen drug dealer who spends his days running heroin, cocaine, hash, speed and anything he can get his hands on with his friend, Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen, “The Salvation”). When a lucrative deal with an old Swedish acquaintance pops up, Frank jumps on it and borrows money from the drug lord Milo (Zlatko Buric, “Montana”). The deal is a set-up and Frank ends up in jail. Over the next few days, he makes increasingly desperate attempts to make back the money.
Visually, “Pusher” is a far cry from director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” The lighting is always dim and the filmmaking guerilla. In fact, filming rules and permits were so strict in Denmark that Refn opted for insufficient lighting in a lot of scenes. Sometimes, it’s impossible to tell what’s happening on screen. But in the end, the movie is the grimiest portrayal of drug dealing life in a long time.
The whole film is wound tighter than bridge cables, and when the snap comes, it’s quick and exacting. The sheer raw intensity of it all is sometimes dizzying, culminating in a beautifully cyclical conclusion that’s as painful as it is logical.
There are no big-time cartels here. Frank is a pusher and nothing more. He doesn’t have any ambition to move up, either. Viewers meet the main characters at street level and they only dig themselves deeper from there. Their story is less rags-to-riches and more rags-to-more-rags.
While there’s not a single redeemable character here, Bodnia plays Frank with an unmatched ferocity. He’s a small-time dealer, but his physical presence is large, only accentuating how small he really is on the inside. As a study in masculinity, he leans on women in his weakest moments and beats them back down, literally and figuratively, the minute he has the upper hand. It’s palpable just how weak he really is.
Needless to say, it’s a tough watch, but immensely entertaining all at once. The DNA of “Pusher” is in Refn’s entire filmography, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not a slow burner, it winds itself impossibly tight in mere minutes and comes undone at light speed. The intensity is beautiful and the violence raw. As intense as a clenched fist, “Pusher” is bound to break viewers and characters in equal measure.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Release date: August 30, 1996
Genre: Crime drama
Rating: 4 out of 5