Like "The Sopranos" with a Dogme spin, the epic Danish Pusher trilogy plumbs the sordid depths of Copenhagen's criminal demimonde and finds something distinctly rotten within. Loaded with the verite chops of Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and company, Pusher (1996) is a cacophony of jostled hand-held camera work and lighting so naturalistic the daytime scenes tend toward unflattering, harsh blues, and the murky interior scenes convey the disorienting sensation of entering a darkened barroom in the middle of the day.
Frank (Kim Bodnia) and Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) form a pair of pushers who pass their time in a fuzzy haze of work and play, making drug deals, picking up girls in nightclubs and shooting the breeze -- most often about sex -- in Tarantinoesque dialogue as they drive to their next deal.
Nicolas Winding Refn's film begins on Monday, but by week's end Frank and Tonny's world changes irreparably. Frank is caught up in a drug bust and finds, when he gets back outside, that Tonny may have double-crossed him, and that he owes a Croatian gangster Milo (Zlatko Buric) an impossible debt. Frank spends the remainder of the film flying solo, trying desperately to scrape together the money and failing miserably.
The Pusher is steeped in the kind of sordid, vicarious thrills and immersion in the lowlife landscape that define the neo-gangster genre. At times, the scurvy details threaten to overwhelm what is essentially a character study of a man who has spent so much time inoculating himself from feeling that he functions on autopilot. Fueled by heavy metal, coke and constant movement, Frank is a shark who dies if he ever stops, a man who trusts no one and is paid back in kind for his lack of faith. At times, Frank becomes more than a lowlife. He transforms into an object of pity, like the Croatian hitman who dreams of opening up a shish kebab stand, caught up in the never-get-ahead, amoral grind of his life.
The idea finds an even better expression in the superior Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands, a psychologically richer brew. The second installment switches its focus to Tonny, who has just been released from prison and attempts to insinuate himself into the auto-theft ring of his crimelord father, the Duke (Leif Sylvester Petersen).
Pusher II is knee-deep in excruciating Oedipal conflict as the impotent Tonny tries to prove himself to his hypercritical father but keeps screwing up. His status in the criminal pecking order is so low that, after a major car heist, he's told he can't ride back with the other crooks and is forced to take a bus.
With each film, characters initially written off as inconsequential or inhuman in earlier films suddenly take center stage and reveal themselves to be more interesting and tragic. As in the previous films, the action in Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death centers on a man whose every effort to assert control spirals out of control.
Pusher III circles back to the seemingly despicable drug lord Milo introduced in the first Pusher. Now in recovery, Milo goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and tries to stay clean despite still leading a drug-dealing ring and bearing the added stress of preparing for his spoiled daughter's imminent 25th birthday party.
But, as in the previous films, escape is futile. Like a riptide, fate keeps pulling Milo back into old patterns, forcing him to commit acts of enormous cruelty.
Chopping up bodies into small enough portions to fit into garbage bags or improvising an electrocution device from a lamp may not fall into any of our repertoires. But Refn and his actors nevertheless compel our empathy. It becomes easy to identify and see how, like these pushers, we are carried along by habit.
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