In 1996, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn unleashed “Pusher” onto an unsuspecting world. Moody, hypnotic, and often repulsive, the film spawned two sequels that actually improved on Refn’s initial foray into an unclean underworld where snorting, shooting, and licking up smack are higher priorities than eating, sleeping, and breathing. In a boldly un-commercial move, Refn resists the urge to stylize or sanitize his utterly realistic story of Frank and Tonny, two drug-dealing, Denmark-inhabiting toughs facing desperate times.
Frank (Kim Bodnia) is a gruff, burly bruiser of a man. He’s also smitten with Vic (Laura Drasbaek), an upper-class call girl who allows him to hide heroin at her abode. Frank’s buddy Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) is more childish, the back of his bald head sporting the tattoo, “RESPECT.” As Refn follows these two small-time thugs through neon-drenched nightclubs, we’re immediately reminded of Charlie and Johnny Boy from Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” During an important smack transaction, police ambush the duo, resulting in the loss of both their money and 200 grams of brown dope.
“Pusher” then focuses on Frank’s increasingly desperate attempts to repay the lost revenue to Milo, a Danish Don Corleone whose paternal, affectionate manner still can’t muzzle his fierce intolerance of deadbeat associates. Zlatco Buric, who went on to reprise his role in both sequels, brilliantly embodies the cuddly crime boss who never lets his illicit livelihood overshadow a neighborly demeanor. There’s a scene where he asks Frank to assist him in moving a refrigerator for his young daughter. Most films would cut this scene. But Refn’s attention to these details makes his characters more than stereotypes or symbols. They really breathe.
“Pusher” has little plot, preferring to immerse viewers into the daily grind of a criminal lifestyle pressurized by debt-driven panic. Ever been badgered by a landlord in pursuit of a late rent payment? Count your blessings. In the world of “Pusher,” unpaid debts equal knives in kneecaps, electro-torture, and brutal beatings via baseball bat.
Meanwhile, Refn’s refusal to provide any clear resolution to Frank’s ever-growing dilemma creates a haunting resonance that car chases, gunfights, and mano-a-mano fistfights simply wouldn’t provide. “Pusher” plops us into a surreal subculture of bartering for the cheapest price (“120 Kroners? Screw you! It’s worth 180!”), watching your back, and looking out for number one. It’s not pretty, but as a vicarious means of slumming with the slimiest of slugs in the most depraved of gutters, “Pusher” is fascinating and tough to shake.