Monday, October 31, 2005

Pusher (1996)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Nihilism and moral relativism of 1990s reflected itself in new ways of drug abuse being portrayed in films. Previously, the only kind of people allowed to be protagonists of these films were either the victims - drug addicts and their loved ones - or heroic crusaders trying to cleanse the streets of that evil. Partially thanks to Tarantino, drug phenomenon began to be portrayed from the perspective of those who use it as a way to make a living - dealers. The trend has quickly spread all over the world, including Denmark, small country with very vibrant cinema industry. One of the best known such films is PUSHER, 1996 drama and directorial debut of Nicolas Winding Refn.

Protagonist of the film is Frank (played by Kim Bodnia), mid-level drug dealer who operates in Copenhagen together with his best friend Tonny (played by Mads Mikkelsen). He is currently owing large sum of money to Milo (played by Zlatko Buric), his supplier and one of top Montenegrin mobsters. When he is approached by his old prison acquaintance from Sweden and offered to take part in huge heroin deal, he sees it as a fine opportunity to pay debts and even make large profit. He talks Milo into supplying the merchandise, but the actual exchange goes terribly wrong - somebody has tipped off police and Frank has to throw Milo's drugs into lake before he is arrested. Release from custody is not the end of Frank's troubles - Milo is angry and wants immediate re-compensation, otherwise Frank would have to deal with his quiet and sinister assistant Radovan (played by Slavko Labovic). Frank now has to play all tricks in his book in order to squeeze every last penny from his customers and business associates, but as the week goes by and deadline approaches, every of his schemes tends to end in disaster.

Many critics loved to describe PUSHER as "PULP FICTION made in Dogma 95 style". Their arguments are based on the use of handheld cameras, natural lighting and almost complete absence of separate music soundtrack. On the other hand, PUSHER was made with very low budget, so those characteristics could be better explained with the lack of financial resources than some kind of lofty artistic statement. In any case, that serves film very well because it adds to its grittyness and naturalism, quite fitting for its dark and depressive subject.

The best asset of the film is Kim Bodnia, an actor who gradually became one of the most recognisable stars of European cinema. Bodnia plays Frank as a complex character that can incite sympathy despite many of his actions being morally reprehensible and, later in the film, downright pathetic. Bodnia puts his macho look to good use - at first, the audience is fascinated with the way his character implicitly uses his physical presence as a business tool while dealing with his customers. Later, that look only underlines Frank's sense of helplessness when he is confronted by his colleagues who might not have his muscles or charisma, but who happen to be have higher position in drug world's food chain. Bodnia's combination of stoicism and vulnerability helps the film even in the scenes that look like cliches used solely to gain sympathy - conversation with his old mother or drug-abusing prostitute girlfriend.

Bodnia's colleagues are equally impressive, and that especially goes to Zlatko Buric and Slavko Labovic. Two of them would later repeat their roles in two PUSHER sequels, and Labovic would even play alternative version of Radovan in IN CHINA THEY EAT DOGS and its 2002 sequel.

Apart from the ending, that partially betrays its naturalism with some sort of pseudo-moralistic comeuppance for main character, PUSHER is very good film. If certain enterprising spirits start thinking twice before getting into certain over-glamorised line of work, it could deserve even more praise.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)


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