It's pretty much Quentin Tarantino's fault. He didn't invent the heist movie or the drug film, but 1992's Reservoir Dogs and 1994's Pulp Fiction arguably put the breathlessness back into two of cinema's more played-out clichés and set the stage for countless imitators. Luckily, though, for every overrated Guy Ritchie we're forced to endure, there's a Nicolas Winding Refn just waiting to be discovered. Refn is the Danish filmmaker behind the violent, tragic, and clever Pusher trilogy, offered this weekend at the Dryden Theatre during two ass-challenging sessions.
While Denmark was all abuzz during the mid '90s with Lars von Trier's minimalist Dogme movement, Refn made 1996's Pusher, a dizzyingly shot piece of cinema that borrows very heavily from the chatty brutality of Tarantino and, though perfectly satisfying, adds nothing new to its genre. Pusher focuses on a week in the life of Frank (the Tom Sizemore-ish Kim Bodnia), a mid-level drug dealer managing the careful preparation for and unplanned aftermath of a big score. At Frank's side is dopey henchpalTonny (the awesome MadsMikkelsen, soon to be seen as the bad guy in the upcoming Casino Royale), and when Frank and Tonny aren't frittering away their time driving, hustling, and discussing gash, they're in negotiations with Milo (ZlatkoBuric), a convivial Serbian drug lord who becomes much less friendly when money has gone astray. The story evolves as you might expect it to, with outfoxing, betrayal, and vicious retribution.
Now, most sequels don't veer too far from the tried-and-true formula of their source material, but when Refn decided to revisit his first film after eight years for 2004's Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands, he chose to focus on Mikkelsen'sTonny, and what could have been another ultra-hip crime flick is instead a heartbreaking character study of a complete loser. As Pusher II opens Tonny is returning home after a stint in the pokey to a cruelly disapproving father, so he resumes his outlaw way of life in an attempt to win his criminal father's respect. Tonny's clueless desperation is painful to watch, and possible salvation appears in the form of a surprise son of his own, courtesy of a former flame. But this ain'tHollywood; it's Copenhagen, and Refn has no intention of letting Tonny --- or his audience --- off the hook. Pusher II, like its predecessor, ends on a vague note and sets the stage for the three-quel.
But not really.Refn swerves into yet another direction for 2005's Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death, a black comedy about a day in the life of Buric'sMilo, the kingpin from the first Pusher who also pops up in the second for a second. Now a member of Narcotics Anonymous despite his line of work, Milo is busy preparing for his bossy daughter's 25th birthday party when a wealth of Ecstasy crosses his path. But Milo is older now, with a young Turk (literally) angling for his business, and everything comes to a head during the celebration when the now-relapsed Milo must contend with spoiled food, missing drugs, and an impolite Polish whore broker. Easily the funniest of the three films, Pusher III is also the goriest, which is saying a lot considering the copious bloodletting that came before. Pusher III's denouement is essentially a how-to in efficient corpse removal, reminding us that a garbage disposal is for more than just orange peels as long as you take that extra minute to untangle the intestines.
More companion pieces than follow-ups, the Pusher films are exceedingly stylish (Refn obviously favors long, unbroken takes a la Scorsese) and well-acted, with Mikkelsen and Buric as the standouts, having had the luxury of fleshing out their juicy roles. And the trilogy definitely lends itself to a viewing in one stretch: the ravages of time on Tonny and Milo are better appreciated, and seemingly insignificant characters that may have been forgotten about with space between films are more easily recalled. Refn has reportedly alluded to additional Pusher films, but unlike other filmmakers --- with the possible exception of Tarantino himself --- there's no telling where he might go with them.
Pusher (NR) screens Saturday, October 28, at 4 p.m. and Sunday, October 29, at 3 p.m.; Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands (NR) shows Saturday, October 28, at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 29, at 5:15 p.m.; Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death (NR), shows Saturday, October 28, at 9 p.m. and Sunday, October 29, at 7 p.m.;all screenings are at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre. Regular admission prices apply for individual screenings, but all three films can be had as an unbroken trilogy for $10.