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The Pusher Trilogy

You talkin to me?

Maybe Denmark’s best filmmaker (discuss), Nicolas Winding Refn scored a home run with his debut feature, Pusher (1996), and returned to the Copenhagen underworld for two further installments eight and nine years on. Taken together, the trilogy embodies a hardcore punk existentialism that would make Søren Kierkegaard proud, or nauseated, or possibly both. Blackly comic and seething with aggro, shot with a spasmodic you-are-there camera in grungy locations and scored to thrash metal, these movies deliver the goods, genre-wise, but they don’t send you out on the high you expect. Refn introduces a gallery of brutal hard men, but leaves us moved by their vulnerability and weakness. All three films borrow from Scorsese, and especially from the way the coked up Henry Hill juggles dealing and household chores at the climax of GoodFellas. In Pusher, the baleful, emotionally constipated Frank (Kim Bodnia) wants to be a standup guy, but an inexhaustible supply of bad luck and bad choices leaves him digging his own grave in quicksand. When the hooker girlfriend he can’t bring himself to touch offers an escape route, he bolts the other way. In Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands, Refn smartly switches his attentions to Frank’s big-mouthed sidekick Tonny (Bond bad guy Mads Mikkelsen), who gets out of jail and goes straight back to his old man’s chop shop. A congenital loser, Tonny soaks up a torrent of humiliation until he’s finally offered the chance to redeem himself by disposing of his bothersome mother-in-law. Underneath the hard-boiled, hopped-up surface, this is a deeply sympathetic film about paternity and rejection. The third movie (Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death), both the funniest and the most macabre, begins with the waning Balkan coke baron Milo (Zlatko Buric) in AA, announcing his intentions to stay clean and cook for his daughter’s birthday party later that same day. Things don’t quite go to plan. Before he’s done, he’ll inadvertently poison his own henchmen, sample a cocktail of drugs and end up butchering his business partners (a sequence that reminds us Refn was turned on to movies by seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at 14). Damn if we don’t feel sorry for him too. American Cinematheque at the Egyptian; Fri.-Sat., Nov. 3-4. www.americancinematheque.com.

—Tom Charity


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