Pusher (1996)

Set in Copenhagen, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher explores the world of Frank – a small time gangster who makes the occasional drug deal in order to get by.

Frank finds himself in debt to a supplier, so when a former prison associate turns up unexpectedly asking to score a large consignment of heroin at short notice, Frank sees the opportunity to make back the money he owes. To do so he sources the drugs from the gangster he owes money to – on the assurance that both debts will be covered after the sale.

Pusher is shot in a very naturalistic style, which makes it feel real and immersive. More mainstream movies set in this environment can be overly polished and stylised resulting in the grubbiness of the world becoming sanitised. The movement of the camera and the framing of the shots often make the viewer feel like they are in the room for many of the claustrophobic scenes.

The character of Frank can be vile and crude at times but he is also strangely appealing as an individual – mainly because he appears to be trying to do his best in life and make it through with the cards that he’s been dealt. Unlike many characters of the gangster underworld he does not seem to revel in violence for status or pleasure. Thus he is a character with depth; he has virtues and flaws – all of which are believable and delivered competently by the actor, Kim Bodnia.

The film is segmented into each day of a week. As the story progresses to the drug deal which will pay off Frank’s debts a very subtle, but increasingly palpable, sense of dread starts to permeate the film. There is a definite vicarious concern for Frank and despite his best laid plans we sense that his world is about to fall in.

Of course the deal goes bad and Frank finds himself without either the drugs or the money and therefore up to his neck in debt to someone more than willing to take several pounds of flesh in lieu. Thus the film descends into Frank’s personal nightmare as he embarks upon a mission against the clock to raise the cash.

It takes nearly half the running time before we see the violence we suspected Frank to be capable of; this patience is testimony to the quality of the film. The character is crafted to create empathy which in turn leads to understanding and acceptance of his motivations and actions.

As the tension builds the film becomes a fascinating view into how its main character responds to the conflict he is placed in – yet on a much more human level than more standard fare in this subgenre. The horror of this film is in the violence, despair and desperation that Frank has to endure.

Pusher is an exploration of fate, luck and circumstance – how individual acts and decisions, even those beyond our control, lead us into situations that can change our lives. The end of the film, whilst not completely ambiguous, is open ended enough to make us consider whether events that may appear to be either benign or malignant can in fact be the opposite, and even if they are – we may never know. On this basis a film about Danish gangsters becomes something that relates to all of our lives, and that is a mark of brilliant filmmaking.

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