(director/writer: Nicolas Winding Refn; screenwriter: Jens Dahl; cinematographer: Morten Soborg; editor: Anne Osterud; cast: Kim Bodnia (Frank), Zlatko Buric (Milo), Laura Drasbaek (Vic), Slavko Labovic (Radovan), Mads Mikkelsen (Tonny), Peter Anderson (Hasse), Lisbeth Rasmussen (Rita), Vanja Bajicic (Branko); Runtime: 110; A First Run Features release; 1996-Denmark)
“The director has cooked up a very disturbing film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

What’s up with Frank (Bodnia), a small time drug dealer in Copenhagen? First-time director Nicolas Winding Refn, who is 25-years-old, tells about a botched heroin deal and the deep hole it causes for Frank in a week that sees his life coming apart. He and his shaved head partner Tonny (Mads), who has respect written on the back of his head, do small drug deals in the seamy-side of the Danish city. When a Swede approaches Frank with a deal that’s too good to pass up he goes to this Croatian drug kingpin Milo (Zlatko), and gets from him 200 grams of brown heroin. Frank says he will pay him right after the deal is completed, plus he will pay back the money he already owes him. Milo is mockingly hospitable calling Frank, my friend Frank, my best friend in Denmark. His enforcer Radovan (Slavko) sits in on the meeting and acts menacingly impassive. The stoic Frank is a fairly tough-guy in his circle of junkies and lowlifes, but is in over-his-head when dealing with these heavy hitters.

The deal with the Swede goes sour, as the cops bust him. But not before Frank runs from them and unloads the stash in the lake. Yet the cops still bring him in for questioning, until they release him the next day for lack of evidence. They did, however, sweat a deposition out of Tonny, who tells them what Frank was up to. They have let Frank go realizing that he’s in trouble with the boss when he returns without the money or the drugs.

Frank tries to tell Milo that it’s not his fault what happened, but the boss becomes more surly now with his good friend Frank and demands the money in two days or else he will break his kneecaps. The first business Frank takes care of after leaving Milo, is beating the living daylights out of his friend Tonny. He then goes to the apartment of his hooker girlfriend, Vic (Laura), whom he will not kiss because of what she does for a living but will get fellatio from her. She is also a junkie, and he uses her place as a safehouse to store his drugs. When he thinks he has reached the end of the line, he even promises to go with her to Spain.

Refn moves the Pusher along with an inward existential beat to it, as outwardly we hear the loud pulsating electric music of heavy metal. The film has a sharp-edged look— shot so that the handheld camera jitters—just like the unflappable antihero does in his guts. Frank’s predicament worsens with every passing day of the week, as each day is flashed on the screen to indicate a new chapter in the story.

There are some chilling scenes thrown in, that are not shocking but represent the matter-of-fact violence that is taking place. In one of those scenes Frank is humiliated as he has to kowtow to Milo, who strips him of all his possessions trying to get back the money owed him.

One doesn’t want to identify with Frank, but the film gives you little choice but to pity him somewhat for the bind he got himself in. Frank would seemingly be content making straight dope deals for the rest of his life. But the world he chose to live in, doesn’t work in that just way. The confrontations between junkie and dealer are violent, to say the least. When one junkie blows off his head with a shotgun blast, it is played for real not for shock. When Milo’s men go after Frank, the violence is hellish. Whether Frank lives or not, becomes less important than in seeing what a hell he has made for himself.

The only thing that stops this film from being better than it is, is that Frank has proven himself to be a worthless human being. The film doesn’t take us into his inner being and give him any hope if he should somehow survive the mess he’s in that he would be a better person for it. So, ultimately, it is difficult to care that much about what happens to Frank.

The director has cooked up a very disturbing film, that is derivative of Pulp Fiction (the conversation Frank and Tonny have over the difference between renting a video and going out to a movie could be right out of “Pulp”). This is not a bad effort for someone who never went to film school. What the young director has shown, is that he can depict the dark underbelly of an idealized tourist city and the loneliness of a girl junkie and a small time drug dealer. Obviously, the two lovers haven’t figured out the right way to handle their emotional disconnect.

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