Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nicolas Winding Refn Films

Spotlight on Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn

The motivation for the final spotlight of the year came after I was riveted by the raw and bloody Valhalla Rising a few months ago. The only previous Nicolas Winding Refn film I had seen was the first Pusher movie about a decade ago, which left me with mixed views. So I decided to pay another visit to Pusher and in turn complete the Pusher trilogy.

Pusher (1996)
With Blood on My Hands: Pusher II (2004)
I’m the Angel of Death: Pusher III (2005)
Valhalla Rising (2009)

Pushing on the streets of Copenhagen

Each film of the Pusher trilogy gives a look at different rungs on the drug trade ladder. Pusher follows a week in the life of Frank (Kim Bodnia), a drug dealer, and highlights his methods, routines and dealings with his supplier Milo (Zlatko Buric).

Frank is accompanied by Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) who is the focal point of Pusher II.

In the second film, a different side to Copenhagen’s gangster side is shown when Tonny tries to partake in his father’s car stealing business. Tonny is also friends with another pusher (Kurt) and has to bear witness to the dangers of drug addiction. The third film deals with Milo, the drug supplier to both Frank and Kurt, and shows that even a major supplier like Milo is answerable to another layer of suppliers.
The three films also provide relevant financial examples as to why a drug trader will most likely be always stuck in his endless cycle of addiction and debt. In Pusher, Frank owes Milo 50,000 kroners. So when a Swede comes to Frank to buy coke, Frank sees it as a chance to make some money and pay off his debt. Milo sells the drugs to Frank at 600 kroners per gram so Frank buys a 200 gram packet for 120,000 and is on the hook for a total of 170,000 Kroners. He decides to sell his dope to the Swede for 900 kroners per gram for a total of 180,000 in an attempt to clear his debt in one go. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned and the police interrupt the transaction. Franks bails and dumps the drugs in a lake before getting arrested. He is released a day later but has no money or drugs to give Milo. Milo does not believe Frank’s story and instead increases Frank’s debt to 230,000. Naturally, Frank has to scramble to pay off his debt in order to avoid getting his legs broken by Milo’s henchman Radovan (Slavko Labovic).

In Pusher II, Kurt pays Milo 15,000 for drugs. But Milo delivers inferior material than what Kurt paid for. Kurt is upset and goes into the bathroom to inspect the package. When there is a knock on the apartment door, Kurt panics and flushes the package thinking the cops are outside. However, the knocker ends up being Milo’s buddy with some food. Kurt is now out of both money and drugs and as expected Milo is not willing to return Kurt’s money. It turns out that Kurt had borrowed the 15,000 from another group and is now on the hook. Milo falls into this debt trap in Pusher III after he agrees to move Luna’s 10,000 pills of ecstasy. However, when the pills turn out to be fake, Milo is responsible for coming up with money to cover the losses.

The first two films provide strong examples of why most drug pushers will never be able to escape their debt trap as they are always in debt and the only way they can return the debt in a quick time is to take on a bigger drug job. The margin of error is razor thin and when things eventually go wrong, they fall into a bigger hole. So after they fall into a bigger hole, Frank and Kurt’s options involve either running away, robbing a bank or killing someone. Neither of these options provide an easy clean resolution. In Pusher III even an established drug supplier like Milo finds himself facing the same predicament as Frank and Kurt. However, Milo’s contacts allow him to bribe a police officer and eventually bring in his old friend Radovan (featured in Pusher) to help cleanup the mess.

Pusher circle

The problems in the Pusher trilogy get remarkably complex with each film. In the first film, Frank is a single guy with no emotional ties to any family, so it is easy for him to consider leaving Copenhagen. In Pusher II, Tonny is shown to be single until Charlotte (Anne Sørensen) tells him he is her child’s father. That added responsibility allows Tonny to take a step back from both the drug trade and his father’s car stealing business to properly assess his situation. He is determined to take the child away from the endless cycle of crime and drug addiction that Charlotte and Kurt are stuck in. In the third film, Milo has a 25 year old daughter Milena (Marinela Dekic) who is going to marry another dealer, thereby adding to Milo’s concerns. Plus, Milo has to cook for 50 people for Milena’s birthday and manage the ecstasy deal while trying to stay drug free. To make matters worse, his two trusty henchmen get food poisoning from his cooking, so he is left to deal with his debt problems on his own.

Similar characters make an appearance in his each film and in most cases, they are carrying about their business as depicted in previous films. The only exception to this is Radovan, who is able to fulfill his dream from the first film and actually change. In Pusher, Radovan tells Frank that he would like to open a kebab place. So when we next meet Radovan in the third film, he is indeed running a restaurant and has turned his back on his drug payment collector/enforcer role. Kurt makes a tiny appearance in the third film but it is hard to determine if he has gone clean. Muhammed (Ilyas Agac) is briefly shown in the second film when he sells Tonny a gun in exchange for Kurt’s gold chain. In Pusher III, Muhammed gives the same gold chain to Milo and agrees to sell Milo’s ecstasy pills. Mike (Levino Jensen) is planning on marrying Milo’s daughter in the third film but he first made a brief appearance in the first film. Tonny’s father wants him to kill a prostitute ring leader Jeanette (Linse Christiansen) in Pusher II but Tonny can’t go through with it. And in the third film, when an Albanian and Pole want to sell a girl into prostitution, they naturally call on Jeanette.

Each film works on its own but put together the films offer a brilliant case study of the perils of drug trade and addiction. Also, the recurring appearance of similar characters also helps etch out the drug hierarchy that exists.

Pusher II starts off in prison but otherwise the films stay away from prison. Yet, similar characters that are shown in the Pusher films exist in Tobias Lindholm & Michael Noer’s brilliant Danish film R which is one of the best films of 2010. R gives a look at the cut-throat hierarchy that exists inside a Danish prison and perfectly compliments the Pusher trilogy.


Valhalla Rising is far more savage than any of the Pusher films. The third Pusher film ends with a brutal cleanup job but the slicing takes place on a dead body. But in Valhalla Rising all the blood is extracted from living beings. Raw, face to face fights till only one man is left standing. Mads Mikkelsen plays the mute slave One Eye, feared for his ability to kill men. One Eye survives his battles and leads a crew to the promised New World. Once they arrive in the new land, they are greeted with poisonous arrows. The arrows mark the next phase in human warfare when hand to hand combat is no longer necessary and weapons allow men to kill remotely without getting their hands dirty with blood.

Common thread

The three Pusher films and Valhalla Rising are about slaves working for a higher authority. The slaves have to find ways to survive on their own but at the end of the day, they have to answer to a leader. Milo is the leader in the first two Pusher films but even he has to answer to another authority in the third film. One Eye’s master is fierce and proud but when the crew enter a new land, the master ends up kneeling down and praying for help to battle against new masters.

Overall, a fierce and intense spotlight that provides a different flavour from the year’s other directorial spotlights.

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