Frank (Kim Bodnia) is a low-level drug dealer in the Copenhagen underworld, after a deal goes wrong he is finds himself in debt to Milo, a dangerous mobster, and he desperately scrambles to find a way to escape death.
Pusher is Nicolas Winding Refn's debut feature and it proved to be a formidable calling card for an exciting new creative force in European cinema. It has a rough, vérité feel; a scrappy quality that typifies the best debuts out there. A hint of inexperience that is overcome by enthusiasm and vision, a display of raw potential where you see confidence in even the sometimes shaky creative choices.
This is an exercise in slow burning tension, Refn doesn't shy away from depicting Milo (Zlatko Buric) and his chief enforcer Radovan (Slavko Labovic) as truly intimidating and frightening figures. Every day that passes is an extra tug on the noose around Frank's neck.
Along with the loose, on-the-fly feel to the photography are some marvellous naturalistic performances. Kim Bodina plays Frank as a tight knot of frustration, such an intense presence that the audience cannot help but feel drawn into his nightmare. Mads Mikkelsen, as Frank's friend Tonny, is a charismatic and energetic performance. Tonny is one of the few live wire characters in the movie, balancing out the quieter, more sullen characters, and Mikkelsen establishes himself as a talent to watch within the brief supporting turn. Zlatko Buric is personable but covering up an anger that reveals itself in shocking ways, whereas Slavko Labovic presents an image of calm even during the most brutal scenes that is frightening. He feels like a man completely at ease with violence.These performances create an impression of spontaneity during scenes, blurring the strings that are often so present in more predictable storytelling. It's a tough film, sometimes unbearably tense, always engrossing, and one of the finest debut features ever seen.
Following Pusher, Refn returned to Copenhagen for the similarly provocative title: Bleeder.
Leo (Pusher's Kim Bodnia) is a clenched fist; he seems to hate everything about his life, including the unborn baby inside his wife Louise (Rikke Louise Andersson). Needing some time away from the constant reminder that whatever plans he had in life are being sapped away by what he sees as a parasite growing between him and his wife, Leo joins Louise's brother Louis (Levino Jensen) for a night out. While talking to a friend of Louis, an altercation with two Arab men leads to a man being shot and another man being savagely beaten. The events Leo witnessed on that night infect him and begins to change him, providing him with a new outlet for his frustrations in life. Leo becomes a monster of Louis' creation and a rift begins to form between the two men, with Louise trapped in the middle.
Once again the performances are all strong and authentic. Bodina, in particular, is uneasy, tense and resentful when we meet him and builds on that from there. He navigates the character's evolution in a subtle, believable way.
The visual style of the film is cleaner and far more assured, sanding away the edges that were so charmingly visible in Pusher. There are even moments of eerie beauty and extravagant expression as Refn starts to show off more - playing with the possibilities of the camera. It doesn't always work but it's thrilling to watch a filmmaker develop an experimental side and gain surety before your eyes.
This is a tense sometimes uncomfortably violent drama which deals with domestic violence and is the first of Refn's film to address Copenhagen's issues with racism, directed primarily at Muslims, something again addressed in Pusher 3. It lacks the tightness and gut churning intensity of Pusher, but it is an interesting and often powerful extension of themes of violence and despair that Refn established in his debut. Handling its core themes with unapologetic ugliness and brutality.
FEAR X (2003)
Harry (John Turturro) is a mall security guard obsessed with the murder of his wife within the mall, gathering evidence of potential suspects through tirelessly studying security tapes of that fateful day.
Fear X is an oppressive psychological thriller, dealing with themes of obsession and mania in ways that begin as unnerving and bleak and descend into pure nightmares. Harry is a man looking for structure and reason in a world that seems devoid of it - it often reminded me of Memento as a study of a man driven into the depths by a desire for the truth.
While Memento used non-linear storytelling to recreate the lead's mental state, with Fear X Refn continues the more experimental visual style that he began to develop in Bleeder. The influence of Kenneth Anger's short films becomes more apparent here; using cutaways of strange, surrealist images to show that Harry's grasp on reality is slipping away. The films conclusion is ambiguous, leaving the audience uncertain what the truth of Harry's mystery is or the truth of what we saw.
Turturro is subdued in his role, one of the most low-key performances I have seen from the actor, but it works. He teases out the character's emotional vulnerability, but never falling on theatrics to get the point across.
This was Refn's first English language film and the massive financial loss from its failure to find an audience drove him back to Denmark. Fear X doesn't always work as a narrative but it is a great exercise in tone and a vital part of Refn's development as a visual filmmaker.
PUSHER 2: WITH BLOOD ON MY HANDS (2004)
In need of a marketable hit after Fear X's box office disaster, Refn writes and directs a sequel to his breakout smash and manages to make something as tense and engrossing as the original but with more emotional nuance.
Pusher 2 sees Mads Mikkelsen's Tonny released from prison and return to the outside world, trying to reconcile his terrible relationship with his father (a feared figure in the criminal community) with his newfound responsibilities as a father to a child he had with Charlotte, a drug addict and prostitute. Tonny's attempts to do right by his child, despite his own turbulent history, only seems to drag him further down into the criminal underworld of Copenhagen that nearly robbed him of his life in more ways than one.
Tonny is as engaging a presence as he was in the original film, a little different a little more guarded, from his experiences both within Pusher and after the events of that film. He is a man with great responsibilities forced upon him and he has enough strength of character to make good on his duties, but also enough frailty to let it break him sometimes.
In a film filled with murderers, scumbags and drug addicts, Tonny's affection for his newborn child and need to protect him from the world he grew up in is a genuine spark of humanity, something that was severely lacking in Pusher but Refn attempted to root out in Bleeder. Tonny is a loving and decent man, but he expresses his love with illegal acts, his experiences in the criminal underworld are given real impact because of his more selfless, personal motivations.
Refn replicates the visual style of Pusher, jettisoning the more experimental tics from Bleeder or Fear X. The film looks great, grim and dangerous, but steadier in the execution than its predecessor.
PUSHER 3: I'M THE ANGEL OF DEATH (2005)
Pusher 3 is a far less intense experience than the previous two Pusher movies, it also feels more restrained in that roaming vérité-style camera work, and this all supports one of the driving themes of the film. An overwhelming sense of crushing resignation.
Zlatko Buric's Milo was once a feared and respected mob lord, but times have changed and we meet him in the middle of a downward trajectory, halfway between former glory and rock bottom. He is a recovering drug addict, attending support groups every week, whilst trying to organise and pay for his daughter's wedding. To provide a little financial support Milo attempts to resume a few old criminal enterprises, particularly drug dealing, but finds it increasingly difficult to work with the new generation of Muslim immigrants.This movie more directly deals with the undercurrent of racism and resentment towards the influx of Eastern immigrants in Europe, touched upon in Bleeder but an important plot point here. Milo is old school, despite being a Serb himself, and he views these young gangsters (viewed as wannabes by an old pro like Milo) as an irritant; they have no respect for the old ways.
Buric perfectly captures Milo's extended moment of personal crisis, he is nearly ten years older than when we first met him and he has widened and slowed with age. His deeper voice, heavier breathing, sluggish movement all adds to the image of a man in decline, internally and externally.
The most memorable moment of the film, the one that has remained with me ever since I first saw it, is where Milo and old colleague Radovan (Slavko Labovic) dismember and dispose of two corpses. The scene is horrific, one of the most graphic displays of gore I have seen and what makes it worse is the methodical and casual way they perform the gruesome task. It completely dehumanizes the victims, reducing them to the level of cattle.
Pusher 3 is a subdued conclusion to an intense trilogy but it is every bit as clear-eyed and effective in its aims as the previous two films, capping off a remarkable crime saga with melancholy and self-reflection. It cements the Pusher trilogy as one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time.
Unlike the rougher, naturalistic Pusher trilogy, Bronson embraces the hints of experimentation and expressionism that were found in Bleeder and Fear X; playing with structure and format with demented glee.
It is telling that many negative reviews will dismiss the film as too “arty”, as if beauty, intelligence and soul are bad things. It is also fundamental misunderstanding of the bizarre and frightening mountain of a man that we, as an audience, have agreed to spend 90 minutes of our time on. Charles Bronson is an artist, as absurd as that may seem.
Refn understands this and has crafted a multi-layered exploration of the man, the myth and the complete psychopath that is Charles Bronson. This is not your typical bargain bin biopic, it never could be; a grittier take on the character (the kind of dreck that a soulless hack Nick Love would produce) is not befitting such a fascinating figure. It would have been more accessible, but far less challenging.
The film is presented through three mediums: The one-on-one confessional with a stoic, solitary Bronson, dressed in drab prison clothes. This Bronson addresses the audience directly, speaking frankly about his life. This is Bronson, the man. Next we have the theatrical vision of Bronson, dressed in a fine tux with his face painted up as an absurd minstrel. This Bronson plays to the crowd; boastful, lively and enthusiastic. He is more volatile and unpredictable. In this presentation we see Bronson’s aspirations, the man he wants us all to see with his best and worst aspects amplified. Here to entertain and enthrall; the center of attention. Next we see Bronson: the reality. This is the narrative portion of the film as we follow Bronson moving through life and beating the hell out of people. There is a lot of soul-searching and a lot more face-punching on the path to discovering his greater purpose. It is within this we see that introspective, thoughtful man meet that highly strung, fame seeking stick of dynamite - the results are contradictory, fascinating and frequently explosive.
This is all largely due to Tom Hardy’s amazing lead performance. He has made a name for himself as a versatile and charismatic actor, but Bronson remains his finest work to date, it is transformative work. Rich, complex, larger than life, this is method acting on par with the best of them. Hardy is truly spectacular.
The film explores the notion of art and artistic expression, given that Bronson has dabbled in expressionist paintings and performance art during his time serving under Her Majesty’s Pleasure; it seems appropriate to view his life story with a more elaborate and experimental eye. Ultimately, though, Bronson’s true artistry came from his fists. He doled out violence with such ease and confidence that it became a form of expression in itself. The violence in the film is delivered with beautiful photography and soothing musical accompaniment – reminscient of A Clockwork Orange – and helps sell the theme of violence and art.
Violence that is both visceral and cerebral, this is a film with more on it’s mind than simply rehashing the man's greatest hits like so many other biopics. This is psychological breakdown of the man and simultaneously serves as a beautiful depiction of how he views the world around him. One assumes it looks like a giant face for him to pummel.
VALHALLA RISING (2009)
Valhalla Rising manages to be even less commercial and more unconventional than Bronson, with a story told in six chapters following a Norse warrior named One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) and a young boy as they travel with a band of Christian Crusaders in pursuit of their Holy War.
The film is an exploration of the age-old relationship between religion and violence, with the journey of the Christian knights searching for their Crusade (one of the bloodiest periods in history and all in the name of God) and the pursuit of divinity through bloodshed, along with the perceived influence of One Eye, drives the Crusaders to madness and despair.
One Eye is a godlike deity, with the ability to apparently see the future and the auras of men. He carries himself with a detached presence, never speaking a word, as if he does not belong among us. He joins the Crusaders when offered the chance to redeem his violent soul by waging war for a just cause; violence as a means of absolving sin. It is an appropriate venture for One Eye, since he seems quite accustomed to bloodshed, as we see quickly and brutally dispatch enemies before they even have a chance to flinch. Mikkelsen perfectly captures an ethereal, unknowable quality that makes his One Eye so compelling to follow despite never speaking a word.
The film has a washed out, grimy look that is all its own; unlike any other Refn film to date. There is a hallucinatory quality to much of the imagery, incorporating a similar approach as found in Fear X.
Despite being a brisk 90 minutes in length, the episodic narrative structure and limited use of dialogue manages to make the film feel a lot longer. It is an interesting experiment and it shows that the disappointing reception to Fear X did not deter Refn from pushing himself into bold places.