Viking Night: Pusher
By Bruce Hall
October 15, 2013
People ask me all the time what it’s like to be a small time drug dealer in Denmark. And thanks to Nicholas Winding Refn, I have an answer. Pusher is the Danish director's 1996 debut, and if you believe in writing about what you know, it makes you wonder what he knows about dealing drugs. This film is a bleak, almost entirely humorless look at what can happen when a small time dealer carelessly takes a swing at the big leagues. It's a warning against overestimating yourself. It's a cautionary tale about taking your work seriously. It's a dark, ugly film whose black and twisted soul will twist and blacken your own.
And I am therefore utterly fascinated by it.
Frank (Kim Bodina) is the aforementioned small time pusher. Or more accurately, he's a lazy schmuck who doesn't want to work, so he and his friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) sell dope. They don't sell much - just enough to eat, and hang around in bars hitting on girls and spitting in each other's drinks. You'll notice the words "rent" and "mortgage" have yet to be mentioned. This is because Frank lives with his girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbæk), a hooker (with a heart of gold) who does her best to nurture him into a long term relationship. But Frank just strings her along so he'll have a place to dip his wick and stash his drugs. Tonny seems to live wherever he wakes up. They’re not really criminals, and it’s debatable whether they’re really even friends.
They're just dirtbags - the kind that are obviously going to land in real trouble someday.
That day comes when an old prison mate pays Frank a visit. He wants to move a lot of drugs, and is willing to pay a lot of money for it. Unable to resist the lure of an easy score Frank agrees, borrowing a substantial sum of cash from his longtime distributor, a friendly Serbian named Milo (Zlatko Buric). Like most drug lords, Milo offers competitive rates and top notch customer service - unless you owe him money. Then, the car batteries and pipe cutters come out. This becomes relevant when the deal goes bad and Frank is arrested, losing the drugs and the money. Milo's head goon Radovan (Slavko Labovic) promptly provides Frank with regular reminders of what will happen - and the parts of him it will happen to - if the money is not repaid soon.
Despite my witty commentary, there's nothing amusing at all about any of this. Frank is in so far over his head there may be no coming back, and each attempt he makes to solve his problem only tightens the death spiral. When he's arrested, the police blithely insinuate that someone Frank knows may have made statements against him. It's the oldest trick in the book, and the movie never specifies whether or not it's true. But if adversity really does expose a person's true nature, Frank's response to every setback on his road to payback is a disturbing window into the mind of a man who trusts no one around him mainly because he's the biggest bastard of them all.
This is the story of a man whose life is in free fall, driven there by his own greed and stupidity. But for those who view themselves as accountable to no one, there’s no limit to how low you can go. This isn’t a movie about drugs, and whether or not you should be using them. It's about a man trying to survive by destroying everything around him. As it progresses, Pusher slowly adopts the foul, increasingly desperate stain of its protagonist. It appears to be shot entirely with handheld cameras, is poorly lit and contains some contextually unsettling depictions of violence. And by the time it’s over, you feel like you've spent 105 minutes staring at someone's armpit. You'll want to hate the film because you'll want to hate Frank - and then it'll dawn on you that this is the whole point. There's no real hero in this story, so don’t bother looking for one. There is just a weak man who is willing to scorch the earth to save himself.
Still, Pusher is a relentless, organic and utterly visceral experience. Things are said and done by and to people that hit you in the gut no less hard for being in Danish with English subtitles. It’s not a very pleasant experience, and I'd stop well short of calling it "enlightening". It's as though Refn managed to successfully capture a single personality, or state of being on film. And in doing so, he’s produced a profile of a closet sociopath whose total lack of empathy is as horrifying as a bag of skulls. Art is sometimes meant to make you uncomfortable and in that regard, this movie knocks it out of the park.
I don't always want a movie to keep me up all night, questioning my humanity and confronting the haunted horrors of my soul. But when I do, Pusher makes the short list.