October 23, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Pusher (1996)

by Nick Schager

Pusher[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Luis Prieto's remake Pusher.]

Frank (Kim Bodnia) is headed for disaster from the outset of Pusher, as evidenced by his introduction via a tracking shot from behind his left shoulder as he moves from the bright exterior of a Copenhagen street into the deep, dark confines of a local establishment. A low-level drug dealer working alongside Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), a wild partner with "Respect" tattooed across the back of his shaved skull, Frank figures himself a big shot, and in that mistaken assumption, he functions as something of a noir antihero, doomed by his own hubris. The first (and, arguably, weakest) chapter of Nicolas Winding Refn's superbly sleazy trilogy is a blistering descent into dire desperation, one that wears its Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction influences on its sleeve—the former via shots like the aforementioned opening one; the latter via Frank and Tonny's criminal repartee—and yet boasts its own, unique brand of bleakness and volatility. Favoring long takes and whipping back and forth between conversational speakers, Refn's handheld camera exudes edgy explosiveness, as does his soundtrack, intermittently blasting into screamy noise or White Zombie riffage.


Its an aesthetic to match its protagonists, who in Frank giving whore pseudo-girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbaek) a stuffed gorilla, and then in Tonny discussing his love of anal sex by retorting "I hear apes do it a lot," expose themselves as brutish animals. And stupid animals to boot, engaged in inanely profane chitchat about sex and characterized by incompetent behavior, which first rears its head moments before Frank pulls off a big heroin deal with a Swede (Peter Andersson), when Tonny injures his foot, and thus negates his usefulness at the transaction, by showing off his clumsy roundhouse kick skills. Such ineptitude is, unfortunately for Frank, matched by bad luck when said deal goes sour thanks to the appearance of the cops, forcing Frank to flee and then dump the drugs in a lake, thereby placing him in even greater debt to Serbian supplier Milo (Zlatko Buric), who gave Frank the junk as a rush-job favor even though Frank already owed him $50,000. Liable for sums he doesn't have, and given little time to make good before Milo's right-hand man Radovan (Slavko Labovic) quits being friendly and starts getting vicious, Frank soon finds himself scurrying for cash, a quest that Refn and co-screenwriter Jens Dahl lay out with a meticulousness that makes plain how Frank is at once undone by circumstance and yet, fundamentally, a victim only of his own stupidity, having bitten off more than he can chew without accounting for potential problems in his scheme.


Frank's lack of a backup plan is fitting for a character driven by only base impulses—a scene of Frank and Tonny drunkenly pretending to stab each other at a bar, set to heavy metal, reveals his true nature—though unlike Tonny, Frank's refusal to have sex with Vic (because he has an issue with paying for it) also indicates that, deep down, he's far more neutered than he initially lets on. That suggestion becomes more apparent the further he sinks into trouble, given that Frank's robbing and bullying comes off as second-rate when contrasted with Radovan, a legitimately terrifying presence comfortable yucking it up mere moments after describing how he compelled his last target to pay up by using a blade to cut out his knee caps. In other words, for all his badass posturing, Frank is a born loser blind to his own loser-dom. And that fact clashes excitingly with Refn's more epic ambitions for his film—which opens with shadowy intro portraits and title cards for his story's players—and with the director's depiction of his urban milieu and his characters' lifestyles, which exudes drab realism in offhand scenes like Frank being forced to listen to Milo go on about his latest culinary concoction (some drippy-looking cake) and moving a fridge (with a freezer!) for Milo bought for his daughter.


Unlike Vic, who holds delusions of being more than a prostitute ("I'm not a whore. I'm a champagne girl"), Frank recognizes and embraces his own low-life criminal station, but Pusher is canny enough to allow him this honest self-assessment while also casting him as a buffoon doomed by his own inner failings and amorality. Eventually turning on Tonny after he supposedly spills his guts to the cops, and then going on the run once he can't reimburse Milo on time, Frank proves an increasingly pathetic center of attention, and one that—when contrasted with Tonny (the star of Pusher II) and Milo (the focus of Pusher III)—is an occasionally dull one at that. Still, Refn's direction and plotting have an electricity that keeps tension constantly escalating as the action moves into darker territory, full of bloody suicides and lamp cord-enabled torture, as well as betrayals that confirm Frank as a cold scumbag clueless about the ruthless world in which he's chosen to operate—and which ultimately leave him trapped in a no-way-out purgatory where every option leads only to doom.

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Posted by ahillis at October 23, 2012 2:26 PM