Pusher/With Blood on my Hands/I'm the Angel of Death | 1996/2004/2005 | Denmark/UK | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Loglines: A drug-dealer tries desperately to repay a debt to a drug lord; the mate of the first dealer tries to do good in his father’s eyes; the drug lord tries to stay clean and adapt to a changing market.
One of the most powerful, uncompromising, and utterly compelling studies of criminal life ever put to screen, the Pusher trilogy are portraits intrinsically linked, with characters that carry over from each movie, yet distinctly independent. Set entirely in Copenhagen; all shot with mostly handheld camera, fly-on-the-wall, cinema verite-style. The mise-en-scene is gritty and authentic, the performances stunning, the direction and editing consummate.
In Pusher, penned by Jens Dahl and Refn, the narrative follows a Monday to Sunday in the life of Frank (Kim Bodnia), a twentysomething crook who deals in coke and smack. His partner in crime is Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), a skinhead with the word “RESPECT” tattooed in huge letters across the back of his head. Frank's girlfriend is pretty Vic (Laura Drasbaek), a call girl with a habit. Frank won’t fuck her because she’s a whore, but he lets her give him head. Tonny ribs him, Frank gives Tonny shit back. They’re best mates, but the ice they tread is thin.
The urgency in which Refn shoots Pusher is dynamic to say the least. The trials and tribulations, the tension and suspense is palpable, the slang dialogue crackles with authenticity. This is Frank’s nightmare descent, as he tries to find the money that he owes Milo (Zlatco Buric), a no-nonsense high roller. And the audience is pulled down with him every step of the way (Frank is in every single scene, except one). The shroud of nihilism that hangs over this movie as is poetic as it is grim. There hasn’t been a more profound slap in the face for the narcotic thriller as Pusher.
With the sequels, which Refn was “forced” to make to pull his film company out of bankruptcy, he returns to the characters of Tonny and Milo. In With Blood on My Hands: Pusher II it is Tonny’s story as he tries – rather unsuccessfully – to wipe his slate clean and build a decent future working for his father. But his father is a cruel criminal himself, who loathes his wayward son. Tonny discovers he’s fathered a boy (to an ex he has no interest in resuming a relationship with, yet can’t distance himself from), and this plays an important card for his future decisions.
I’m the Angel of Death: Pusher III is Milo’s tale, a more seasoned player than the leaner version we first met in Pusher. He still cooks dodgy dishes, but his lovely daughter is keen for him to whip up some grub for her 25th birthday party. Milo has been attending Narcotics Anonymous, and seems to be clinging to the wagon, until an old viper passes by, Kurt the Cunt (Kurt Nielsen), slipping him a wee packet of tasty horse. Milo’s rubber arm is behind his back, and before you can say “King Kong of Copenhagen” xenophobia rears its ugly head, and there’s blood on the floor. Lots of it.
It’s hard to say which of the three movies is the best, as they’re all as good as each other. Each central character and performance is riveting. Refn directs with a maturity and sophistication that belies his experience. He’s not interested in making any kind of moral statement, he simply presents these characters and their milieu as it is. Refn is like a Danish Scorsese, as concerned with realism (including gut-wrenching violence) and attention to detail, as he is determined to tell a captivating story, and in this case deliver the most convincing portrayal of the underbelly of society; the nuances of character that fill it, the foibles, humour, truths, and lies – the twisted morality and fragile mortality – that makes it all so dangerously fascinating.
The Pusher trilogy is unpretentious, virtuoso filmmaking on all levels.