Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death
Pusher III was released in 2005, two years after the former film Pusher II. Refn was still trying to rebuild his name as a marketable arthouse filmmaker after his disastrous box-office bomb, though critically-acclaimed and excellent film, Fear X. He had moved back to Denmark to make his films on smaller budgets and in the vein, thematically, of the film that put him on the back: Pusher.
On the third and final Pusher film within the trilogy, Refn continued to use the talents of cinematographer Morten Soborg whose style and techniques were somewhat within the Dogme 95 standards as I’ve discussed before. This third film is no different in the fluidity of the camera work and the emphasis and creation of emotional mise-en-scenes that map out and exteriorize the interiority of characters within the narrative. But on each successive film, the arthouse sensibilities seem to have diminished slightly in favor of more conventional modes of storytelling and a stream of consciousness style of recounting that loses its ability to focus in deeply on dramatic and powerful moments (There are dozens of such moments in Pusher, and the subsequent film Bleeder even ups the ante in this regard, but in Pusher III, I only witnessed two such moments).
The film follows Serbian drug lord Milo during a day in Copenhagen in which everything goes haywire. He is dealing heroin these days and has a shipment coming in from some Albanians. But when the shipment arrives, they only find ecstasy, which Milo does not know how to sell. Milo confronts the Albanian contacts he has in Denmark who assure him that they will send a new shipment of dope in the following days. Milo decides to buy the dope later and to buy and sell the ecstasy now. He pawns it off on a low-level drug dealer and friend, Muhammad, and demands a cut of the money when his own deal goes through. He will then use that money to pay off the Albanians.
Unbeknownst to Milo and Muhammad, the ecstasy is actually just vitamin pills that were sent to screw over a different dealer, the one who got the heroin shipment in the initial transaction mix-up. Muhammad tries to sell the stuff, but is laughed at after the ecstasy is revealed as fake. Muhammad thinks Milo sold him out and does not contact him that day. Meanwhile, the Albanians press Milo for the money for the ecstasy and Milo tries to track down Muhammad to get his money. He sends out a corrupt cop friend of his to arrest Muhammad on bum charges and bring him to him.
The Albanians press their favor with Milo in exchange for giving him more time to wait on the money. They commandeer his house and turn Milo into a servant. While there, they attempt to sell an underage girl to a local Prostitute-turned-pimp Jeannine (The Duke’s, of Pusher II, ex-wife), but she recognizes the trickery and leaves without making a deal. One of the two Albanians leaves to go do some business, while his Polish friend sticks around and orders Milo around in the process. The girl tries to run off when the Polish man exits the room momentarily, Milo catches her and brings her back inside, the Polish gangster starts to beat her, Milo kills him with a hammer, she leaves, the other guy (the Albanian) comes back, Milo kills him. the corrupt cop shows up with Muhammad bound and gagged, and Milo puts him into the trunk of his car and spirits him away to his friend and ex-muscle Radovan’s restaurant, where they commence torturing him, find out about the bad deal, put him into a meat locker to freeze to death, and go back to Milo’s to clean up the bodies.
All the while, Milo is dealing a heavy drug addiction that is taking a bigger toll on him as he ages. He has been going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but the stress of these bungled deals and his daughter’s upcoming marriage, as well as the reception party for the event (during which he must cook and provide services for guests), all lead to a relapse after Kurt the Cunt, just returned from hiding out in Norway (from The Duke whom he owed former debts that were later dissolved when The Duke wound up dead by the hand of his own son Tonny in Pusher II), gives him some cocaine as a gift and fealty offering.
In Pusher, we see Frank’s world crumble before his eyes over the course of a few days through bad luck, bungled drug deals, and an inability to get the money he needs to pay Milo for debts outstanding. He narrowly escapes Denmark at the film’s close and may ultimately be the winner of the situation, as he now must live a quiet life somewhere far off and keep his head. But he may be able to find a more honest way to make a living in the process and redeem himself. In Pusher II, Tonny is under similar circumstances and eventually puts himself on a pretty long shit-list as well. He escapes the underworld with his infant son and we as viewers hope he has a successful future living in obscurity much like Frank, whilst simultaneously raising his son outside of the criminal underworld that shaped himself so negatively. But in Pusher III, there is no redemption. Milo is god-damned professional and finds a way out of the most intractable of situations. But he is ultimately still trapped by his drug addiction and his tumultuous life of crime, which seems inescapable, and one day, not so far away, when he is no longer so spry and witty, the underworld may become the death of him.
The fear of the first film represents to me something of an amateur’s fear of beginning the art of filmmaking. It was Refn’s first foray into film and he had no clue before its release whether or not it would make money and he would be able to secure funding to continue his career in that direction, or if he would fail and end up a janitor in a movie theater instead. The hope of the second film represents a response to that film’s history as well. Refn had failed to garner the box office receipts he needed on his previous two films and his production company went bankrupt in the process. It was now or never and if this film did not please investors, all could end once again, but he approached that future much more hopefully, and the film’s ending was much less bleak than the endings of his two previous films.
But just as he began slack artistically on each successive Pusher film, the feeling of the third film is jaded. The film ends with the camera’s sustained gaze on Milo standing above an empty pool, in the cool Scandinavian morning air, smoking a cigarette, and seeming pretty crushed by everything around him. He seems hopeless and tired and ready to die and I believe that this might reflect Refn’s thoughts at the time. Not to say he was jaded and suicidal in general, but that his only successful films hitherto had been the Pusher films and any time he had tried to inject more artistic sentiments into his films, and thereby more of himself, audiences did not respond enthusiastically enough to save the films financially. He seems to have taken a break from filmmaking at this time, as his next film, Bronson, would not premier for another three years. But after this period of reflection on his career, he managed to create a powerful film that re-establish Refn’s name as more than just Danish crime film sensation, but as a real potential heavyweight within arthouse circles.
[Next up: the 2006 documentary on Refn’s career up to this point, Gambler]