The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn #1 – Pusher (1996)

1337179752_1Just who the hell is this polarizing director anyway? It seems that with every film he releases the receptions have been vastly divided from both critics and audiences alike. Is he too artsy for his own good? Is he no more than a glorifier of senseless violence? Or is he a one-of-a-kind visionary? Maybe he’s none of the above, or all of the above, or something entirely different altogether. Guess there’s only one way to find out. Time to tackle the world of Nicolas Winding Refn one film at a time. First up, his debut feature, Pusher.

four-stars4And just like that, I’m hooked. Like the cocaine being peddled and snorted on the Dutch streets of Pusher, as soon as that first taste of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s debut hit my senses I knew I had to have more.

Told throughout the course of a week, Pusher is about a not-so-very-nice-guy named Frank (Kim Bodnia). This guy isn’t even nice in an anti-hero Trainspotting sort of way. He’s a drug dealer who is way over his head in debt with some other not-so-very-nice-people. However, just because he and his cohorts are not likable characters doesn’t mean this is not a fascinatingly intriguing film. Actually, aside from Frank’s mother, who is only given a minute of screen time, this film doesn’t contain a single character that I would ever want to be acquainted with. Again, this is not a bad thing.

With its cliff hanger ending, realistic shooting style and immersion into the seedy Danish street level drug tradings, Pusher is just as an addicting watch as its younger brother TV shows, The Wire and Breaking Bad would later be. In the spirit of true escapist cinema, Pusher’s violent anxiety-filled world of hyper-hormonal tough guys is a world in which I truly enjoy staying in – from the safety of my living room, mind you.

Being safely transported into a world of coke dealers, womanizers, thugs and interrogation rooms is one thing, but to observe all this through the viewpoint of just one of these inhabitants (Frank) in a visual aesthetic most resembling that of an early Martin Scorsese (most notably Mean Streets) meets the visual aesthetics of 1990s independent cinema (Clerks., Chungking Express, Man Bites Dog), as well as the Dogma 95 films of Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg is an entirely other thing all together. It’s quite wonderful, actually. Impacting. All this makes me wonder why I waited so long  in my film appreciating years to finally delve into Refn’s work.

Now I heard that Refn’s work is quite violent, and while this may be true, Pusher’s depiction of it is actually tasteful. Your not going to spend an entire movie immersed in underground cocaine dealings and come out unscathed. Whether someone is blowing their brains out or being beat with a baseball bat, the action happens off screen and it isn’t until after the violent act has been committed that we see the bloody aftermath. In other words, there’s no need to close your eyes, nor is there a need for CGI. It’s a fantastic case of smart filmmaking where the less you see is far more disturbing, and most importantly, it’s never exploitive.

A little fun fact: This film marks an impressive acting debut by Mads Mikkelsen. As the tattoo on the back of Mad’s head indicates, and in true 1990s vernacular; mad respect.

Next up: Bleeder

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Categories: Director Spotlight, Reviews

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