(Parts 1 & 2)
Danish writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn began work on this 3 part examination of Copenhagen’s drug scene in 1996 with Pusher, the first installment. Two other films intervened before he released Pusher II: With Blood on my Hands in 2004, soon followed by Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death a year later. All three are being shown this month, back to back, at Cinema Village, one of New York City’s better-known downtown foreign film venues. The overall running time involved is 3 hrs 45 minutes, a rather short period for three full feature-length films; yet despite the often mesmerizing content of the director’s work, I left after Pusher II, numbed by Refn’s depiction of life among Denmark’s drug suppliers and users. If ever hell on earth has been captured in the movies, this is it.
Frank, (Kim Bodina) a small-time dope dealer and Tonny, (Mads Mikkelsen) Frank’s sleazy confederate roar through the placid streets of Copenhagen, abusing their addict-customers and slapping their girlfriends into submission. Frank combines feral cunning with a vicious temper, often focused on Tonny, whose coarse verbal bravado masks a slow mind and a gaping inability to perform sexually at the exaggerated level his outward braggadocio incessantly advertises. When the police interrupt a drug buy, Tonny rats his partner out and Frank finds himself in a lethal underworld squeeze; his inventory, bought on credit, had to go into a river so there would be no evidence for a prosecutable crime…but how’s he going to raise the money to repay Milo, (Zlatko Buric) the Russian mobster who bankrolled the deal?
In Pusher II, Tonny leaves prison, discovers that he’s fathered a child by a neighborhood slut and becomes hired muscle for yet another dealer who supplements his income by running a whorehouse. Despite the risks facing him as an ex-con, Tonny becomes a user once again, running afoul of Milo who now conspires with Tonny’s father to apply pressure on Tonny to pay what is in essence someone’s else’s drug debt. Panic and patricide result; in Tonny’s world, money and the temporary escape it can buy trumps family ties every time…
(The program notes for Pusher III note that now it’s Milo’s turn in the barrel - - he’s paid for heroin, but received ecstasy; when he tries to unload it at an inflated price, he falls into the same dance with death as his victims did in parts I and II…)
Both Pusher I and II come complete with thudding, garage-band soundtracks and dialogue virtually devoid of anything beyond obscenities. Refn’s characters, human sludge caught up in gyres of their own creation, generate an aura of Bosch-ian depravity which engulfs everyone on screen; it’s a credit to the director’s actors that so much impact can come from such meager, depressing ingredients. (In a case of life imitating art, The Danish Actor’s Union voiced “massive criticism” of the physical and mental hazards caused by director’s working methods.)
But there’s much here that mesmerizes, as evil often does. Sexuality is expressed solely through porn; two hookers mock the john who hires them, finally employing a stag film in an unsuccessful attempt to get him aroused. Tonny’s 8 year-old half-brother is casually introduced to a striptease act at a wedding reception. A terrified addict takes his own life with a shotgun before Frank can do it for him. The films’ three principals act out of concern for absolutely nothing or no one other than themselves. Lies, betrayal and a resolute determination to advance their own self-interests produce a nihilistic code of conduct so pervasive that destruction becomes the only possible outcome. And destroy themselves they do, with an inevitability that’s the visual equivalent of a slow-moving train wreck.
Messrs. Bodina, Mikkelsen and Buric are all frighteningly impossible to ignore, but of the three, Buric’s cheerfully brutal Milo demands the greatest attention; in Refn’s hermetically-sealed drug world, Milo’s a genuine 21st century fascist leader, corrupting everything he touches with frightening bonhomie.
Should you see some part of this trilogy? Only if you have a very strong stomach and don’t mind leaving the theater in a depressed state. That said, does the director’s scalding examination of this vile mini-society help explain man’s capacity for the worst forms of exploitation? Methinks it does…
The verdict? Venture here only at your own risk.
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