THE PUSHER TRILOGYNR
From the multiplex to the art house, trilogies seem to be all the rage these days. This summer alone saw the release of three Part III's-Mission: Impossible III, X-Men: The Last Stand and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift-while Shrek, Jack Sparrow and Spider-Man are all preparing to embark on their third adventures next year. Meanwhile, outside of Hollywood, French filmmaker François Ozon continued his so-called "trilogy of mourning" with Time to Leave and Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier released Manderlay, the middle chapter of his three-part "USA-Land of Opportunities" series (although the director has since told the world not to expect the final installment, Washington, anytime soon). Now von Trier's fellow countryman Nicolas Winding Refn is getting into the act with The Pusher Trilogy, a trio of films set amongst the gangsters, drug dealers and other assorted lowlifes of Copenhagen.
Unlike the typical Hollywood trilogy, the Pusher series doesn't feature the same batch of faces in every movie. Certain characters recur throughout, but each film effectively stands alone. What links them together, apart from the setting, is their style and structure. Refn is fascinated by human behavior in times of personal crisis and to that end, he has fashioned a narrative that places the main character of each film in an impossible situation, which they then need to solve through extreme measures. While the specific details vary from movie to movie, the basic set-up involves the "hero" making a deal that goes sour, leaving him in debt to another colleague. As he attempts to extricate himself from the situation, things spiral out of control, inevitably ending in bloodshed.
Refn took his time putting The Pusher Trilogy together. After making the first movie in 1996, he didn't return to the series until almost a decade later when he directed Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands and Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death back-to-back. As a result, there's a noticeable tonal shift between the original film and its two sequels. Pusher is quite clearly the work of a young filmmaker (Refn was 26 at the time) who worships at the altar of Scorsese, De Palma and Tarantino. In fact, Refn pays homage to Tarantino in an early scene that features low-rent dope peddlers Frank (Kim Bodnia) and Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) cruising through the streets of Cophenhagen while comparing their respective sexual histories in hilarious detail. The fun times come to an abrupt end when Frank's latest client turns out to be working with the police. Although he manages to ditch the drugs before being caught, he still owes the money from the botched sale to his supplier Milo (Zlatko Buric, the only actor to appear in all three movies). Given only a few days to pay off his debt, Frank scrambles to raise the cash, but finds himself blocked by other obstacles at every turn. It's a classic beat-the-clock scenario that ends on a wonderfully ambivalent note, with Frank peering into his future and realizing that he's trapped in a prison of his own making.
While the later Pusher films are equally dark-if not more so-they possess an emotional undercurrent that's missing from the original. In the press notes, Refn mentions that he was a husband and father by the time he started work on Pusher II and III, and family plays a large role in both movies. With Blood on My Hands finds an older, but no wiser, Tonny being released from his umpteenth stint in prison and going to work at a local chop shop run by the Duke, a legendary career criminal who also happens to be his father. Tonny wants nothing more than to win his dad's love and respect, but the fact that he's a perpetual screw-up makes this a difficult goal to achieve. Sure enough, it isn't long before he's caught at the center of a drug deal gone wrong and ends up owing money to the Duke. I'm the Angel of Death, meanwhile, follows Tonny's former boss Milo over the course of one long day and night as he attempts to juggle his beloved daughter's 25th birthday party with a "business opportunity" that he's farmed out to a resentful partner. When that partner mysteriously vanishes, Milo is forced to make a deal with his own supplier, one that sets the stage for a truly gruesome finale.
You don't have to watch all three Pusher films in one sitting, but once you start, you'll find it difficult to stop. Shooting largely with handheld cameras and a minimum of artificial light, Refn offers a vision of Copenhagen that's more blighted urban wasteland than picturesque tourist destination. That feeling of rot and decay carries over into the characters' lives. Frank, Tonny and Milo all talk a good game, but deep down they're not proud of who they are and what they do. And yet, they can't bring themselves to leave this world behind because it's the only thing they know. In a way, the real hero of The Pusher Trilogy is a secondary character, Milo's brutal enforcer Radovan (Slavko Labovic). In the first movie, he confesses to Frank that he longs to quit the drug game and open a shish-kebob restaurant. When we see Radovan again in Pusher III, he's made good on his dream...although his sense of loyalty prevents him from turning down Milo's desperate pleas for help. Still, he's the one person in all three movies who takes charge of his destiny instead of allowing himself to become a victim of circumstance. There is a way out, Refn seems to be saying, but only for those brave enough to take it.