With the recent release of the poster for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, what better time to revisit the director's urgent and uncompromising debut?
As Pusher illustrates with scintillating severity, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has never been afraid to get his hands covered in fake blood. Made in 1996 when he was just 25, his debut sees a dealer pounding the streets of Copenhagen. As he would later illustrate in his breakthrough international movies Bronson and Drive, Refn has a soft spot for violent men: men who are driven to, or who embrace transformative violence and who find themselves unable or unwilling to turn back.
Pusher begins with the kind of filmic brio which belies its humble roots. Five figures emerge one by one (barely) from the shadows. They’re our primary cast: Frank (Kim Bodnia), Vic (Laura Drasbæk), Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), Milo (Zlatko Buric) and Radovan (Slavko Labovic). As the film begins we’re practically riding piggyback on Frank’s shoulders – he’s in motion and he’ll stay that way for most of the film’s duration.
Shot entirely using hand-held cameras and filmed in chronological order, Refn turns Frank’s demise into a pulse-pounding race against the clock. Frank is a mid-level dealer who’s reliably accompanied by his loutish sidekick Tonny. They’re playing at being tough guys but are transparently out of their depth. Frank is approached by an old prison acquaintance for a large quantity of heroin and procures it from his Serbian supplier Milo, who he is already heavily in debt to. When the drug deal goes awry Frank’s world collapses: his friendships, which are inseparable from his business dealings, crumble to dust.
What might first appear to be the Danish equivalent of Trainspotting (they were released the same year, with Danny Boyle’s film arriving just a few months earlier), also has much in common with the work of Quentin Tarantino. There’s certainly a touch of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs here, particularly in the way these garrulous (wannabe) gangsters shoot the shit. Pusher starts out as a buddy movie before Frank becomes increasingly isolated, exposing himself as a man with an inability to build real emotional connections.
Refn has described how he was inspired to make films after watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. His parents are the director and editor Anders Refn and the cinematographer Vibeke Winding and they raised him on the cerebral films of the French New Wave. For young Nicolas watching American horror movies represented the ultimate rebellion.
Pusher began life as Refn’s short film application to a Danish film school. He turned down the resulting offer opting instead to turn Pusher into a feature, teaming up with then film student Jens Dahl, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay. Two weeks before shooting was due to begin Refn fired his lead actor and approached the already established Bodnia, who fortunately was game.
Mikkelsen has since become a household name (providing it’s a classy household), thanks to Casino Royale, and Bodnia recently starred in the popular TV detective drama The Bridge. Pusher’s own popularity in its native Denmark and beyond meant that it spawned two sequels – in 2004 and 2005 – each focusing on another character from our ensemble (Pusher II follows Tonny and Pusher III Milo). Furthermore, we’ve now seen a Hindi – and recently an English – remake of the original. But, as ever, it’s best to see where it all began. Unlike the shit Frank peddles, it’s the real deal.