"Pusher" is Nicholas Winding Refn's first feature film and from it it's easy to see that he would be an interesting director. As the title suggests, the film is entirely about a drug dealer, but this isn't a drug dealer out to rule a city, so much as the blue collar version. We see him move from a fairly comfortable working arrangement to facing certain death withing a week as a result of a few bad choices and unfortunate circumstances.
Pusher's main character, Frank is not very good at his job, and he's not very good at dealing with people. We see that dealing drugs makes him pretty impressed with himself, and the prospect of a deal easily wins out against sound judgement. He trusts people he shouldn't trust with his money and proves himself untrustworthy many times. Frank is above all things a pretender. He's not ambitious at all, but he imitates those who are, only to end up lacking he skills that could make him successful. When facing torture at the hands of his supplier, Milo's thugs, he insists "I didn't do anything wrong." and that is truly his approach to life and business, although even a passing look at his decisions would show many things he'd done wrong just because he was too lazy to do things right.
The drug deal that accelerates his down fall is a good example. He's approached by a guy he's never seen before for a rather large heroin deal, which he needs right away. Although he's suspicious at first, the man's insistence that they served time together causes Frank to play along. Rather than admit he doesn't recognize him, he asks Milo to supply heroin for the deal even though he already owes Milo money. When the customer meets him to confirm that the deal will happen the next day, he has another stranger with him. He tells Frank "He's with me. He's alright." and Frank accepts it. When the time comes to make the deal, he allows the customer to completely control the situation. He gets into the customer's car, and does nothing when the car starts driving off. He agrees to give up the drugs before he's paid as well. If he'd been paying attention, it should've been little surprise to find the cops would be in the picture soon, as it was an obvious set up.
He makes another deal, sending a woman named Rita to Amsterdam with his money to pick up heroin and gives her a hard time about her own payment for doing it. Clearly she isn't trustworthy as she returns with baking soda, which he doesn't even check himself. He only finds out when Milo's enforcer Radovan tests it, because it was offered as payment. Frank wants all the rewards but he doesn't want to work as if he's entitled to everything he wants just because he exists. He has no sense of loyalty. Even his best friend Tonny, is kept around just because Frank feels smarter than him. It's obvious that he doesn't like Tonny much. All Tonny cares to do is talk about sex, which seems to be of no interest to Frank. He gets angry when Tonny makes mother jokes, but he's obviously made enough of them that Tonny has his reactions down to a routine. When the deal with the Swede goes wrong, Frank takes it out on Tonny, beating him badly enough that he likely needs to be hospitalized. He has no indication that Tonny said anything to get him in trouble, but beating him is just how he chooses to vent, rather than admitting that he himself made a bad call.
Vic is the only other person who cares about him, and presumably he cares about her. He tells Tonny that he can't have sex with Vic because she's a prostitute, but when he's hard up for money he attempts to set up a date for her hoping to get the money. With Vic we see that he's really wearing down her tolerance for his company. She tells him she needs to charge him more rent because he hides drugs in the house. Their relationship is more based on drugs than any affection. We see Frank ignore her requests for attention repeatedly. She asks him to get a pervert across the street to leave her alone. He agrees, but then doesn't bother to show up. She tells him about her sick dog, but he pays little attention. He's not interested in anyone's problems but his own.
Even his relationship with his supplier Milo shows Frank's lack of loyalty. Milo is willing to bring in a sizable amount of heroin overnight so Frank can do a deal. He even overlooks the fact that Frank owes him money already. Yet, Frank thinks nothing of going to another dealer for product to sell in Milo's territory. When things go bad, he simply tries to avoid Milo even though he's expressly told to come see him. While Milo is certainly overzealous in his collection efforts, Frank's stupidity only hurts his own case. He shows little urgency in getting the money he owes together until he finally realizes that the deadline has passed and he may not be walking again soon. It's hard to be sympathetic to Frank when he hasn't figured out how to treat anybody well. Milo may be a psychopath when pushed, but this isn't news to Frank. He knows why Radovan hangs around and even makes use of his talents himself.
"Pusher" isn't Scarface and it also isn't a film about bottom level junkies who'll do anything for a fix. Most of the drug use here is by for the most part functional people as recreation. Until things go badly, Frank's relationship with Milo looks more like a friendship than a business arrangement. Milo's chief concern is cooking and the drugs just keep the money coming in. Even Radovan, the enforcer would much rather be cooking Shish Kebab than breaking legs. But, as with most people, he can only be pushed so far. Unfortunately for Frank, when he's pushed too far, he sees torture and killing as parts of the business. While Frank is a beta dog trying to look like an alpha, Milo is the real deal. He's put the work into his business and aims to keep it going. Compare his severe collection efforts to Frank's and it becomes obvious why Frank has "bad luck." Frank visits people who owe him money, and he's greeted with "Why didn't you call? I would've had cash." Frank just didn't bother with collections because it was work. "Pusher" is a bleak film, but a believable one. It's refreshing to see the blue collar drug world, looking much like the rest of the world. If you've ever noticed an employee working somewhere and wondered why they work at a job when they obviously can't be bothered to put any effort into their work, then you have a good comparison for Frank. Of course, at most companies, you'll only get fired. You'd think Frank would put more effort into it, but I'm not really surprised that he doesn't as laziness becomes too much of a habit to break after awhile.
Kim Bodnia does a fantastic job making Frank a believable character. He's desperate when he needs to be, and clueless the rest of the time. He makes Frank seem like a guy you could run into on the street. Mads Mikkelson is terrific as Tonny, the irreverent best friend with far too much energy and not enough sense to know who his friends are. Laura Drasbæk's Vic is an interesting character, although she gives the least away. We wonder why she tolerates Frank, and it makes sense when she comes to her senses and leaves him. It's an interesting relationship dynamic, not really romantic but almost, although we wonder why they bother. Zlatko Buric's Milo is the most entertaining part of the movie. Aside from his drug dealing and his momicidal rage he comes across as a nice guy. This makes his fits all the more alarming. He's happy to offer you coffee and pastry while he considers whether to kill you or not. Slavko Labovic's Radovan is also more than he appears. While he does a great job at being the intimidator, he's not fond of the work. He'd much rather own a restaurant, but still, he has a job and he does it. We can tell that he'd rather Frank pay what he owes, but it isn't Radovan's call when he doesn't.
While Pusher was originally a stand alone piece, it was expanded to a trilogy, Pusher II gives us a story with Tonny as the lead, and Pusher III focuses on Milo. All of them are well done and it's not the material you'd expect to make a film trilogy. The original has also been remade a couple of times. It's no surprise that Nicholas Winding Refn became more well known, as he hasn't stopped taking interesting directions in film. Here, he shows us a story that could well have happened. With Pusher he already had a strong style. He doesn't feel the need to show us everything that everyone said, but is confident that he can skip to results and we'll put the pieces together. He knows how to use music and that a kitchen table can be menacing when presented the right way. He knows that approaching a sink where a man waits with bolt cutters is as effective as showing a torture scene. We don't wonder why Frank scrambles to get away. He gives us a dreary landscape where drugs most common use is as an antidote to boredom. Drug dealing however isn't a good line of work for the lazy as Frank would likely tell you if he could ever be honest with himself.
We're introduced to the characters as the film starts. We see Frank (Kim Bodnia,) Vic (Laura Drasbæk,) Tonny (Mads Mikkelson,) Milo (Zlatko Buric,) and Radovan (Slavko Labovik,) make an appearance in shadows as their name appears beneath them.
We then see Frank walking down a city street. The titles tell us it's "Monday." He stops at a hotel picks up a key and heads to a cluttered room that appears to be used for storage and pulls a roll of bills out from their hiding place in a filing cabinet.
He meets up with his friend Tonny to visit some potential customers. The customers complain about the quality of the drugs, and then about the price insisting on paying 45,000 when the price is 50,000. Frank starts to walk out, but the customer insists that he come back, although he can still only pay 45,000. Frank removes some of the drugs and gives him what he feels is 45,000 worth. The customer isn't happy, but they let it go.
Frank and Tonny then stop by Frank's girlfriend Vic's place, with a stuffed animal for her. Vic tells Frank it'll cost him more if he keeps drugs at her place, citing a girl she knows who got in trouble because a guy hid drugs at her house. When they leave, Frank tells Tonny that Vic isn't his girlfriend, since "I don't want a whore for a woman." Tonny asks him for details about their sex life but Frank isn't interested in sharing. Tonny shares some over the top anecdotes about his own sex life, and then adds, "It was your mother." making Frank a little angry.
Frank meets up with a woman named Rita and gives her money to pick up some drugs for him. She asks for her own payment but he tells her he'll pay her when she gets back, to which she reluctantly agrees. He then meets up with Tonny for dinner before they go to a nightclub. They both team up in hitting on a girl until Tonny gets slapped. We see them at the bar later mock knife fighting.
Tuesday, Frank gets a call from Vic that a pervert in a neighboring building is staring at her. He advises her to throw a bottle at the guy and call if it doesn't work. She's worried that the guy will freak out if she does. He offers to take care of it, but Vic doubts it, telling him he's just going to hang out with Tonny. Frank meets up with Tonny, who tells him a Swede is looking for him, but he doesn't know what he wants as he can't understand him. Frank steps out to see the Swede, who asks for "brown sugar." He's surprised that Frank doesn't remember him as he says they were in prison together. Frank asks how he heard of him and tells him it'll be a few days to get what he wants. When the Swede offers a good price, Frank tells him he'll check into it. He stops in to see Milo, his supplier, who is in the middle of cooking pastries. Frank tells Milo what the Swede wants and that he wants it tomorrow. He tells Milo he'll bring payment for the drugs after he does the deal. Milo reminds him that he already owes him money, and this will only add to that. Frank assures him that he'll pay what he owes next week, and pay him for the deal tomorrow as soon as it's done. While they're talking Milo's henchman Radovan grabs a shotgun from the kitchen and walks past. Milo agrees to have the drugs there for him. He meets up with the Swede again and tells him he'll do it but raises the price, as Milo wanted more than he thought. The Swede has another guy with him but he tells Frank "he's alright." He agrees to pay Frank's price. Frank gets a small amount from Tonny to reassure the Swede and they agree to meet the next day.
Wednesday, we see Frank show up to pick up the drugs from Milo. Milo hands off the drugs and Frank and Tonny wait behind a supermarket for the Swede. They're early for the meeting, so they walk into the grocery store where Tonny asks Frank what kind of sex different girls like. Frank tells Tonny "I've never fucked Vic. I can't deal with paid for pussy." He tells Tonny that he once saw a guy following Vic around and beat him up. Tonny tells him he should've kicked the guy. He demonstrates a kick for Frank, but ends up hurting himself. The Swede finally shows up but doesn't get out of his car. Frank gets in the backseat with him and the driver starts driving them away. The Swede insists on getting the drugs before he pays. As soon as Frank hands them over the car stops and we see the police are waiting. Frank runs out of the car but they catch him after he dives into some water getting rid of the drugs he hasn't lost while running. The cops question him but he doesn't tell them anything.
Thursday, Frank is in a jail cell, where they wake him by dumping a bucket of water at him. They question him again, but he tells them nothing, insisting that they can only hold him for twenty four hours. They release him. We find Milo making a sandwich when Frank shows up to apologize. Milo acts like he doesn't remember they had an appointment, asking Radovan if he remembers. Milo asks him to sit down.
Milo: What, then?
Frank: I don't have the dope and I don't have the money.
Milo: Why don't you have the dope, why don't you have the money?
Frank: The police got me yesterday.
Milo: You were busted? [looks at Radovan]Frank was busted! With 200 grams, yeah? And you're not in jail, or solitary, or whatever it's called? That's strange.
Frank: All the dope is in the Lake.
Milo: 200 grams in the lake. My best friend in Copenhagen, Frank. 200 grams in the lake, yeah? Tell me some more...Were you busted or not?
Frank: Come on, I told you I was busted.
Milo: If you were, show me your papers.
Frank: I don't have papers. What papers? You don't get papers if they don't find anything. It's like a bad joke.
Milo: Should I believe you, Frank? What do I do now? You owe me 180 now.
Frank: It's not 180, it's 120.
Milo: How much did we say?
Frank: The deal was 120. I owe you 50 from last week.
Milo: No, no, no, Frankie. It was 120. It was. But now it's 180. 180. YOu want to ask why? Ask...
Milo: It's for the story you brought me. You see, it keeps getting bigger. So it's 180, and 50 now. Frank. What can you do? Can you bring me some money now?
Frank: If Radovan comes with me I can bring you 50.
Milo agrees to lend him Radovan, but Frank insists that he has to do something first. He leaves Milo's and finds Tonny. Without wasting a moment, he accuses Tonny of talking to the cops and savagely beats him with bottles, chairs and a baseball bat. Tonny insists he hasn't done anything, but Frank isn't listening.
Frank meets up with Radovan to visit a customer of Frank's who owes him money. On the drive over Radovan makes friendly conversation by telling Frank he has to get a new line of work. He tells Frank about another guy who owed Milo money, and couldn't pay, detailing how he took off the man's kneecap with a knife. He tells Frank he wants to open a restaurant serving shish kebab and Milo could handle the deserts. They agree that Milo is a lousy cook. Frank's customer has no money so Frank's threats don't do much. He uses Radovan as intimidation. Frank and Radovan see that he's telling the truth so Radovan hands the man a gun and tells him he's going to have to rob a bank to get the money. Unable to take the pressure, the customer shoots himself in the head. Radovan says he'll talk to Milo about what happened, but Frank will need to have something tomorrow.
Franks stops to see Vic. He tells her everything's alright, but she asks what happened with Tonny as she heard he beat him pretty badly. He changes the subject and they do some drugs. He asks her to go to a party later on. He then meets with another of his contacts to buy some heroin and tells him he'll pay for it tomorrow. Snorting some lines in a bathroom he drops his cell phone in the toilet. He also tries to sell Frank a gun, but Frank asks "What would I do with a gun?"
He goes to the party with Vic and tells a photographer that Vic will give him oral sex for money. He asks Vic what the photographer said to her, and she tells him about the proposition, saying "He thought I was a whore." He asks "Aren't you/" Vic insists that she's a "champagne girl." and doesn't want to discuss it further.
Vic shoots up while Frank goes to bed.
Friday, Frank wakes Vic up with music and an air guitar performance. He soon hits the streets. He calls the connection where he earlier sent Rita to pick up drugs for him. He tells Frank that he'll send her back tomorrow rather than today as expected. He then calls Milo and tells him he can't make it for their meeting today. Milo reminds him that he didn't come yesterday either. He tells Frank "If you don't come tomorrow with that 50, you won't be able to walk again. Okay?" Vic gets home and finds Frank watching a movie. She asks what's wrong but he doesn't answer. She notices a package and Frank tells her to open it. She finds some lingerie for her, but when she tries to thank him with a kiss, Frank gets angry and bats her away from him.
Saturday, we find Frank looking through Vic's cabinets. She asks him to drive her to see her dog at the vets and he reluctantly agrees. Rita meets them at the car. She hands him the drugs and asks for her money, which he tells her he doesn't have. She gets in the car with him and Vic when Radovan walks up and knocks on the window. He asks Frank "Are you crazy or what?" He pulls Rita out of the car and then tells Vic to get out before he getting in with Frank. He tells Radovan he didn't come yesterday because he didn't have the money. Radovan asks, "What can I do when Milo says, "Find Frank and get my money? We have a serious problem."" Frank assures him he'll be by later to fix it, but Radovan insists he needs it now. Frank tells Radovan he has 100 grams of heroin and asks if he wants it. When Radovan tests it he realizes the drugs the woman picked up for him are lactose. Radovan throws the "drugs" out of the car and tells Frank he has one more chance, and must bring him 230,000 in two hours. Vic returns to the car and asks what's going on. He just tells her to get a cab.
Frank stops by to see a customer who owes him money, assaulting him and throwing things around his shop. He tells Frank he should have called first and he would've had cash. Frank stops in to see his mother, and tells her he's looking for work. He tells her he needs some money today "or else." She tells him she only has 6,000, which he takes and leaves. He catches up with Rita and asks where his heroin is. SHe acts like she doesn't know it was fake and tells him she was with a guy named Lasse yesterday. Frank takes her to Lasse's place and pulls a knife on Lasse demanding his dope. Rita finally admits that it's in Amseterdam and Lasse wasn't involved.
Frank goes to the storage room filing cabinet and gets a gun. He visits a gym and robs one of his connections of his drugs and money. He tells everyone in the gym that Frank robbed him and they start to follow Frank although he holds them off with his gun.
He runs into Radovan again, who tells him "It's time." He notices Frank has a gun and asks "Are we going to war?" He escorts Frank for a walk. Frank offers Radovan 30,000 to let him go, but he just shakes his head and walks him to Milo's. They walk in on Milo eating. Frank tells Milo he has 59,000 he can have but Milo ignores him and asks "How are you, Frankie?" He reminds Frank "You owe me 230,000." and asks him to repeat it. Franks asks for two days. Milo tells Frank he can credit 60,000 for Franks car, and he reminds Frank that he offered 59,000 in cash. Frank tells him the cash is at the hotel and Milo volunteers Radovan to retrieve it. Frank insists that it won't work if Radovan goes to get it. Tired of Frank's excuses he has Radovan beat him and tie him to a chair. Frank mutters "I didn't do anything wrong." which makes Milo angry. He yells "You are my friend, Frankie. You took 50,000 and didn't come back." He tells Milo there's 50 at the hotel, but Milo reminds him that previously he said 59,000.
They torture Frank in the chair. He blacks out and wakes up with Milo asking "Tell us a story, Frank." He tells Milo he had dope coming in from Amsterdam to sell and give him the money. Milo isn't happy that he was getting dope behind his back. Milo says "Little fucker. Now I'll show you something." He has Radovan and another thug bring Frank to the seat where Radovan has some bolt cutters waiting. Frank manages to get the gun from the second thugs waistband and starts shooting, although he misses Milo and Radovan. He stumbles to Vic's place. She's alarmed at his condition.
Sunday, we see Vic taking car of him in bed. She asks what happened and he tells her he got his ass kicked by some guys. He tells her he has to leave town. She tells him her dog died. He asks Vic to come with him. She suggests they go to Spain and he agrees. We see them together in a cab. Frank has the cab stop at the hotel so he can get something from the filing cabinet. He runs into Radavon there, but surprises him by hitting him with the door and running away. They stop at a dance club next so he can sell some drugs. While he waits for the money, Milo calls and tells him "We have a problem. It's going too far. Too many people talk about us.Bad for you, bad for me. Frank, my friend, we have to fix it, yeah?" Frank asks what he suggests and Milo asks how much he has. He tells him 70,000 and Milo tells him to bring that and they're even. He gets paid for the drugs, and then tells Vic they're not going to Spain. She looks upset and reaches into his pocket and takes his money. He chases her but she gets into a car and loses him.
At Milo's place, we see Radovan laying plastic on the floor as they wait. We see Vic in the back of a car and Frank on the street wondering what to do next.