When I saw Drive last year for the first time I was utterly blown away. The film was something special, and it was evident the key reason was due to director Nicolas Winding Refn’s strong direction and unique style. Having checked out Bronson (impressive) and Valhalla Rising (interesting…) I was really looking forward to watching his “formative” work, The Pusher Trilogy. My thoughts on the three films are after the jump!
I had intended to only write something short about each film and my overall thoughts….but I got a bit carried away and as a result it is a tad on the wordy side. Warning – I do go into the plot a bit, so this could be considered mildly spoilerish depending on your tolerance levels.
The first film in the trilogy is centred on low-level drug dealer Frank (Kim Bodnia). Frank isn’t exactly the smartest cookie, and he seems to have the most unfortunate luck – almost everything he touches turns to sh*t. Frank and his side-kick Tonny are given the opportunity to buy a large deal of heroin (or “dope” as it is referred to throughout the trilogy), which could potentially make them a lot of money. Not having the cash for the drugs himself, Frank goes to Milo (Zlatko Buric), a Serbian drug baron who is at the top of the drug food-chain. Although Milo is owed some money by Frank, he agrees to lend Frank some more money for the deal, provided that Frank comes straight back with the money once he has sold the heroin. Unfortunately for Frank and Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), the deal goes wrong when the Police turn up mid-deal and bust them – not only do they lose the drugs but they lose the money too.
Frank then spends the remainder of the film trying to make deal after deal to get the money (+interest) back to a furious Milo. Men have been killed at Milo’s direction for much less, and Frank knows that Milo’s patience will wear thin pretty quickly. We watch Frank becoming increasing desperate, as he tries to grasp at any tiny deal that might buy him some time and forgiveness from Milo.
There is no doubt that Frank is a low-life. He treats women like objects, and has no respect for himself or anyone else. Throughout the film he is taking drugs almost constantly – it’s amazing that he can function at all. Between the constant drug-taking and his less than impressive IQ, he doesn’t display much smart – street and otherwise. The thing about Frank is, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. It wasn’t his fault the deal went bad, and he has wound up in such a dire situation. Frank and Tonny are relatively harmless on the scale of things and the conversations and jokes that the two of them share are very childish. They are almost like a pair of low-life teenage thugs who have never grown up. Watching Frank trying and failing again and again to dig himself out of the deep hole he has created from himself is frustrating – for every step he takes forward, he takes several back.
The second film in the trilogy follows Tonny, who we first met as Frank’s sidekick in the first film. Since the first film, some years have passed, and we reacquaint ourselves with Tonny as he is serving his last day of a prison sentence. Just before being released, Tonny is reminded by his cell-mate that he owes a significant amount of money, but out of respect to Tonny’s high-level gangster father, he is being given some extra time to pay it.
After being released Tonny tries to get a job at his father’s chop-shop, but that goes horribly wrong when Tonny can’t get even the simplest of things right. In an attempt to get some money, Tonny joins forces with a local gangster to do a heroin deal. Due to the drugged-up gangster’s stupidity, the deal goes wrong and Tonny finds himself deeper in debt, and without any drugs (sound familiar?! – see Pusher).
On top of trying to gain his father’s favour and trying to dig himself out of the hole he is in over the failed drug deal, he also discovers he is a father to a young child. Although he initially won’t acknowledge the child, he slowly starts to come around. It becomes clear to him that the child is being ignored and treated just badly by him and it’s mother, as he was by his father. The thing about Tonny is, he really is the most pathetic of all the characters in the trilogy. He never really wants to hurt anyone, and unlike the others he doesn’t obviously hate woman – in fact he generally avoids having to physically harm them. He has grown up in this horrible world and is a product of it. There are several scenes (including a painful one with two women) which show what little confidence he has in himself. He is constantly being told by everyone that he is a failure and can’t do anything right, and he believes it. This film is really about Tonny’s journey – his realisation about the world he is part of and why he is the way he is. Although the film is really stagnant at times, his character arch is absolutely fantastic.
The final film in the trilogy focuses on the once untouchable, Serbian drug baron Milo. Milo is getting on in years, and is finding that he is increasingly competing with younger men that have knowledge of drugs and techniques that he has never heard of. The film takes place over a single day – the 25th birthday of Milo’s daughter. We see Milo from very early on at Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He states that he has been clean for 5 days [and is trying hard to keep it that way], but is worried he might be very tempted today, as he is responsible for preparing the food for his rather demanding daughter’s birthday dinner.
After the NA meeting, Milo heads to pick up a package of heroin, only to find that it is ecstasy instead. Although Milo doesn’t know anything about E, he decides he can sell that as well as the original heroin that the gangsters have promised to get him. It turns out that selling a product you’re not sure of the value of isn’t that smart of an idea – especially when it involves being in debt to up-and-coming gangsters who would do almost anything to see you gone.
The film follows and increasingly desperate Milo as he struggles to keep is head above the water in a world that is becoming foreign to him – his time has passed regardless how much he fights it, and he is now fighting for survival amongst a new generation of thugs. As well as trying to make/recover money and sort out his supply issues, he also has to ensure birthday party goes off without a hitch. It’s a long and stressful day which we follow until it’s conclusion early the next morning.
There is something quite humanizing about watching this so-called drug baron get flustered in the kitchen as he cooks for his daughter, and despairs over wanting to take a hit to get him through the stressful day. Despite some of the unspeakable things that Milo does during the film, there are moments like that when you get a glimpse of the humanity hidden within him. He obviously loves his daughter and is willing to do anything for her – the heart-felt speech he gives during her party is quite moving. It takes something special for a film to make me feel any sympathy for a man who commits such horrific acts of violence.
The first Pusher film is really quite an achievement for a first time director. Made on peanuts, the film manages to tell a compelling character-driven story in an original and interesting way. Using the lack of funds to his advantage, Refn has brought a really grittiness to the film (and the subsequent films). The films are “fly on the wall”/documentary style, and it feels like they are providing you a unique no-bars look into the Copenhagen underworld.
It is the protagonist of each film which really makes them worth watching. They are interesting, fully formed characters, that are not as shallow as you might expect such thugs to be. It is quite an achievement that Refn managed to make these low-life thugs have moments of real humanity and heart. There is no doubt that these characters are real pond-scum – they are the lowest of the low. Despite this there are moments when you feel sympathy for them, and even become invested in them getting out of their seemingly hopeless situations.
It’s easy to see the beginnings of Refn’s directorial style in these films. The films all have more than one scene which have characters driving (or as passengers) while loud pop music plays over the scenes. Refn uses transport/transportation as a way to break up scenes, and to give the character and the audience time to reflect on the situation and where the story is heading.
There are also many scenes of ultra violence and explicit sex through all three films. It’s hard to tell if Refn wants to shock, or if he is simply showing things as ugly as they really can be – there is no sugar-coating the filth in his films.
The films were all shot on handheld cameras which not only gives them that documentary feel, but also allows for more freedom of movement in shots – there are some great foot-chase action scenes which put the handheld cameras to excellent use (and gave the camera operator a decent work out!)
Despite the interesting characters and obvious talent on display in the films, they do have short-comings – the main one being the pacing issues. There are several scenes in all three films that just don’t need to be there or are much longer than they need to be. The films seem to rush through some of the scenes that are important for plot development, only to spend 10 minutes on a scene which doesn’t move the story forward in any way – I personally found this to be really frustrating. I also felt that some of the violence and sex just didn’t need to be as explicit at it was – it really was awfully uncomfortable at times. Sure this may have been the point, but Refn did such a great job bring the underground world alive the films, that I’m not sure all of those scenes were needed – at least not to such an extent or length.
The Pusher Trilogy is certainly worth your time. The films are compelling character-driven stories, that showcase the obvious talents of Refn and some great European actors. Just be warned – they aren’t always an easy watch, and you may find yourself feeling a little queasy after a few of the more explicit scenes.