Frank has a problem. He's a drug dealer, and user -- coke, heroin, anything. Then he botches a huge deal and ends up owing Milo, a Copenhagen crime boss, 230,000 Danish kroners -- serious money no matter what currency you're talking.
Everyone wants something from someone in "Pusher," Danish writer and director Nicolas Winding Refn's bleak 1996 feature debut, being shown at the Brattle with its companion films, 2004's "Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands," and 2005's "Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death." All three interweave the fates of various nefarious players. The post-prison story of Frank's foul-mouthed, drug-dealing buddy Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), a minor character in film one, becomes a central part of "Pusher II." Milo (Zlatko Buric) is the focus of III.
In the first "Pusher," it's all about Frank, played to checked-out perfection by Kim Bodnia. Whether posturing with macho bravado or lashing out from fear, Frank remains stone-faced. Nothing is redeeming about him, or for that matter, any of the characters, save his alternately ignored and mistreated girlfriend, Vic (played by Laura Drasbaek with a combination of innocence and desperation). Yet one can't help pitying Frank, as he must face Milo, his henchman Radovan (Slavko Labovic), and the threat of death. Frank never breaks down or loses face; his eyes let on only glimpses of the terror he must be feeling.
Refn's direction in "Pusher" exhibits an uncanny prescience for techniques that would peak a decade later as reality TV -- low-budget, digital video; the use of a tipsy, peripatetic camera; and a wide-angle lens to engulf all the action. Plot details -- both banal and brutal -- are divided matter-of-factly into days of the week. Dialogue appears partially ad-libbed. Supporting roles are cast by nonactors, some Copenhagen criminals. Refn lived in New York, but there's no Scorsese-esque glamour in this life of crime. Nor does the stomach-turning violence offer the gallows humor relief of a Quentin Tarantino bloodfest. The trilogy's second two films are somewhat quieter, with sub-themes about fatherhood and addiction. Harnessing less of the violent energy of the first, they still take their emotional toll.
Refn's raw vision may be hard to watch, but Bodnia, Mikkelsen , and Buric's measured and vulnerable performances make this trilogy worth the discomfort.
"I think a lot about doing something else," Radovan says to Frank during a rare lighter moment. One wishes he would. That they all would.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.