I asked for recommendations for genres or themes or directors to focus on for this month’s bi-weekly film essay focus. The Surrealist Junkie thought it would be cool to write some essays about the films of one of Europe’s greatest living directors: Nicolas Winding Refn. Most people are familiar with his films of the 2010s, and especially Drive and Bronson, but his earlier ones are harder to find in the states on home video release or streaming services. Because of this, I haven’t seen many of his earlier works and I suspect that many of you are in a similar situation. That said, this month I’ll start watching his earliest works to familiarize myself and you with Refn’s full body of work. So without further ado, let’s start this journey, in 1996.
In the mid-90s, Danish filmmaking was largely the provenance of one man: Lars von Trier. In the early eighties his work exploded upon the scene with The Element of Crime, a neo-noir arthouse film whose sepia-toned cinematography and phantasmagorical play of memory, fact, and fiction was then the most powerful auteur statement in the Danish cinema since Carl Dreyer’s work in the classical black and white period. Von Trier’s other two experimental achievements in the E Trilogy included 1987s Epidemic and 1991s Europa, a now-classic piece of arthouse cinema and post-war paranoia since then largely unmatched. By 1995, von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg had created a new movement in European cinema that proved to be one of the most innovative approaches for years to come: Dogme 95, which sought to pare down cinema using handheld cameras and little to no special effects in an attempt to reclaim the cinema from the studios and give it back to the auteurs. To make people aware that access to costly equipment and editing and special effects software software were not necessary to make powerful, engrossing films.
In 1996, Nicolas Winding Refn wanted to become a filmmaker and wrote a script for a short film influenced by American crime films like Cassavettes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and Friedkin’s French Connection. He planned to create the short as part of his application to a film school, but the story grew over time until he decided he needed to make an independent feature instead. He managed to get a small budget and to cast one of Denmark’s biggest actors of the time in Kim Bodnia whose intensity in the resulting film helped to catapult Refn and actor Mads Mikkelson to stardom.
Although other Danish filmmakers had made crime films before (like von Trier’s Element of Crime), Pusher is considered the first Danish gangster film for its depictions of more than just noir conventions and its move into the dramatization of post-noir street-thug lives. The influence of American crime films is particularly apparent in the homage he pays to them in an important set in the film: the main character Frank’s bedroom. His room is full of posters showing stills from Taxi Driver and Scarface, and he has an extensive collection of VHS tapes. Again, the one displayed most prominently is Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s classic crime thriller/drama and meditation on street life angst and malaise.
Although not a Dogme 95 practitioner, and arguably forced into his methods through budgetary concerns rather than stylistic ones (though there are definite stylistic parallels to Mean Streets, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and the night scenes of Wim Wender’s film The American Friend), Refn used only handheld cameras on the shoot and no digital effects as far as I could tell to create a taut, emotionally powerful, effectively dramatic and gripping, auteuristic first feature. In this way, Pusher is a spiritual brother to the Dogme 95 movement and serves as an example of the Zeitgeist’s unconscious power over the direction of auteurs in Denmark in the mid to late nineties period.
The sound design of the film oscillates between atmospheric synthpads and swells, to emotionally-gripping piano pieces, and moments of intense silence where you could hear a pin drop. The cinematography ranges from gritty street scenes and dynamic action shots in cars, to daytime interiors with light-blasted windows ala Deakins, to nightclubs in blue and red neon. Finally, there are the scenes of life at night between Frank and Vic where the shots are so underexposed that emotions are more implied than shown and their inability to communicate effectively is palpable. Here the piano swells and the viewer becomes more than a voyeur. Instead one is transformed into a participant in the scene’s communicative disconnection and loneliness as the two fight with their own selves and each other’s guards to reach one another in a powerful moment not unlike the erotic scene between Deckard and Rachel in Blade Runner (the music and cinematography also stylistically parallel this scene)
Frank and Vic ultimately fail in this attempt at connection and thereby highlight a failure between all characters to communicate in the film. Frank and his friend and accomplice Tonny only interact on a superficial level through small-talk, talk about women, and drinking with one another. When Frank suspects that Tonny has ratted him to the cops over a drug heist they attempted to pull the previous day, Frank tracks him down and beats him, nearly to death. If they had ever communicated on a deeper level, breaking off their relationship so violently would have probably been much more difficult and Tonny may have been less likely to rat him out in the first place.
Frank and Vic often have casual sex and lead separate lives beyond their nighttime escapades. But where Frank wants the relationship to remain casual, she desperately wants a regular life or at least some pillar in her life to bring some normalcy into it. She is a high-class prostitute, or ‘champagne girl,’ who interests Frank as a person on an emotional level. But Frank can’t get past his feelings of jealousy that she must share herself with others and often expresses disgust when she attempts to kiss him. After Frank is busted by cops for possession of heroin and his luck has turned, it continues to turn over and over creating a downward spiral that has people all over the city after him. He decides to run away to Spain with Vic and they seem close to finally connecting with one another when he ruins the emotional opening and opportunity by deciding to go back to try and make amends with the drug dealer he has inadvertently double-crossed. He says he won’t go with her to Spain and that everything has been worked out, but crushes Vic’s heart in the process. In anger, she runs off with his money and leaves him alone in the heart of a city where damn near every low-life and hustler around, not to mention quite a few junkies, want him dead. Worse, the money he was going to give to the drug dealer, Milo, to assuage his anger and attempt to regain his favor and protection, is now gone and Frank is left with no options but to wait for death.
And all for a misunderstanding based on miscommunications. Not the wrong man of classical film noir, and by no means a morally innocent man, Frank is a predator and a lowlife. And maybe he deserves all of this. But as a viewer watching these events unfold, it sure doesn’t feel right. Not right at all.
[Next up: Bleeder]