Cinema Signal:

Nordic National Cinemas
by Tytti Soila

. "Pusher I" (first of a trilogy)

This portrait of a small-time dope dealer in Copenhagen made a strong enough impression on enough people that it has spawned 2 sequels 10 years after its appearance in 1996 and has turned into a trilogy. Audiences, apparently, don't forget. "Pusher" traces the character and scams of Frank, a seemingly happy-go-lucky criminal opportunist with a personality that tends to make you forget what he's capable of. As breathed into life by Kim Bodnia, this is an anti-hero who seems more sympathetic than he should be.

The basis of the sympathy we feel for him is that he's almost as much a victim as a perpetrator, working his way into an untenable situation through his own misguided opportunism. Buying drugs with money you owe your supplier isn't smart and doesn't lead to a long life. Neither does lying about when you'll be able to make good on your debt. And Milo (Zlatko Buric), the kingpin of the local heroin trade, is more patient and willing to take a risk on Frank's word than Frank deserves.

Collecting debts from deadbeats to pay off your own debt is the bane of many businesses, but no legal enterprise resorts to such violence as a means of collection. The willingness to beat someone to death goes with the territory, especially if it's a matter of your own survival. If you're too soft for the work you just won't last long on any city's mean streets. Which is why they call them "mean." It's also why Frank and Milo understand each other's position and why Milo's enforcer Radovan (Slavko Labovic) holds back from what he'll have to do to his "friend" if he doesn't make good on his promises.

Frank is living with Rita (Lisbeth Rasmussen), a nightclub dancer. When his pal Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) asks if she moans when making love, Frank declines to answer, as though he has feelings for the girl. But, as gorgeous and worthwhile as she is, the macho man won't admit to anyone tieing him down or making him appear weak. He explains his reasons for seeing her on a continuing basis as regard for a whore, an attitude that's not exactly conducive to a relationship.

While "Pusher" is a character study, Refn doesn't go into any great psychological depth or background, remaining on the surfaces of concrete realism. We follow his hero in his week from hell as he tries to extricate himself from a gang whose patience has been sorely tested by his own betrayals. How did I come to bond with someone like this? The biggest surprise is how you give a damn about what happens to Refn's bad guy--a testament to Bodnia's native likeability.

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"With Blood on My Hands: Pusher II"

Continuing his saga of the Copenhagen criminal class, Refn puts Tonny, Franks's former right hand man and erstwhile business partner, in the center of the action, picking up his story as he tries to learn toughness from his cellmate (in his most recent incarceration) and seeking employment at his fathers's chop shop when he's released. But Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) isn't Frank, and he has as much trouble commanding the respect he so desperately seeks from Duke, his old man, as he does from us, the audience.

Everyone in this circle of crime uses drugs like it's water and Tonny, a reactive personality, isn't shy about joining in, along with his whoring around and maintaining his self image of a tough guy without fear. But the main crime in question here isn't the rampant prostitution or popping pills, though Refn does include another bad drug deal with Copenhagen kingpin Milo in a subplot to maintain the title and his franchise. But the primary crime of choice in this episode is stealing cars.

In trying to convince his savagely contemptuous father that he's as capable as his regular guys, Tonny makes one of his typical bad choices by stealing a Ferrari and driving it to the shop. But for bringing such a high risk vehicle to his operation and demonstrating his utter lack of judgement, Dad debases Tonny almost beyond redemption, yet the eager son goes on. While this and other things he endures might make him a sympathetic anti-hero, we're inclined to side with all the low-lifes who consider him retarded. Even he admits to a memory deficit as a result of Franks' hitting him with a baseball bat in the first episode.

The problem with the movie, besides Mikkelsen's dour persona (no equal to Kim Bodnia's magnetic one), is that none of this earns the central character enough sympathy to balance against our own lack of caring for his unengaging simplicity and loser qualities, leaving the drama to depend on our interest in waiting for the inevitable fuse to be lit.

He wears the word "respect" on the back of his bald head in a display of need that's more pathetic than endearing and he goes around like a loose cannon on the edge of desperation and rage. His human side is ignited when one of his whores accuses him of being the father of her baby, claiming that he's the only john she's had who was stupid enough to impregnate her. While denying it, he's fascinated by the child and even manages to change a diaper. But any admiration for this domestic angle is shortlived by the violence and threat of his actions when he's pushed too far. There's virtually no limit to how far this sorry, sad character will go, and the story ends on a very chilling note.

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"I'm the Angel of Death: Pusher III"

In this third episode we learn who the title character is. It's Milo (Zlatko Buric) and it's been him all along. But, though he may be the survivor of the series and its most consistent presence, he proves that he can get in as much trouble as any of his dealers and other cohorts. A hardened man with signs of a soul lurking somewhere under that ample breast of his, he's all too willing to go further out on a limb than a kingpin pusher should.

His front is a diner where his crew hangs out, somewhat patterned on "The Sopranos" Copenhagen style. On this day, his daughter is having a wedding announcement party and he, heroin pusher Milo, is cooking for the occasion. He buys a load of Swarma and, preparatory to the wedding feast, he treats his men to the dish, slightly cold. They complain, but they eat. And they get very, very sick.

This proves disastrous when an overly ambitious would-be pusher blatantly calling himself "The King of Copenhagen" pushes Milo to let him sell the new-age pills the drug-veteran knows little about that he wound up with on a prior deal. None of Milo's men can stop heaving long enough to go with the guy to protect their boss's interests. But it's critical that he gets the money so that he can pay off the dealer from whom he got the pills in the first place. Now, he's got to trust this self-glorifying asshole do the deal and return.

Which is made worse because Milo's so distracted by the party, cooking and delivering the meal and keeping his daughter happy. Which is another loop to be thrown. After making a speech about how much she means to him, and making sure her new husband will buy all his drugs from him, Milo, daughter has the gall to negotiate with her dad for a bigger cut on his action than his usual. She won't settle for less. So much for paternal affection. For this crew, the business angle is way ahead of any sentiment. And, when Milo's deal goes sour, and his options run out, he finds himself paying his debt through a form of enslavement, bodies fall and enforcer Radovan (Slavko Labovic) returns to help out his old boss in a time of need.

The DVD (The entire Trilogy)

All in all, director Refn's work describes a nasty, harsh existence among the brutal, a world of criminals coping with their subhuman kind competing on grounds well below law enforcement radar and social acceptability. Its sense of reality is promoted by a uniform lack of compromise in suggesting the merest sign of morality in its grim picture of humanity. If you want someone you could comfortably root for, you're in the wrong area code. But the design is to appeal to compulsive, prurient interest anyway -- not a stuffy, dramatically controlled one where something decent might actually survive. And, what makes the series work, is the true-to-life flavor of the character studies, in the first place.

His filmmaking style is similarly hard hitting with a guerilla forwardness, chronological filming schedule, edgy spontaneity in the performances and editing, horror film screechiness in the sound track to heighten the fear and Milo's evolving destiny, and a cast that could actually inhabit the settings seen (one actor wound up in prison after his work). A pushy piece of work worth the withdrawal when it's over.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner

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Kim bodnia is Frank, The drug dealer of the 1st episode.
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