Forget pimps. It's hard out there for a Pusher.
Frank the drug dealer (Kim Bodnia) works the streets selling his wares. His friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) is kind of the muscle, but mainly the two just talk about sex while they wait for clients. This isn't the eloquent, funny sex talk of a Pulp Fiction. It's the crude, blatant lingo of real street thugs. No pop culture in this dialogue, unless there's a lot of Danish references we don't get. Frank's girlfriend, Vic (Laura Drasbaek), is hooked as well, and he provides the fix for the trio. But he owes Milo (Zlatko Buric) $50,000 and he's fresh out of product. He gets enough from another source on credit to earn the money he owes Milo, but a police bust leaves him with nothing before he can sell any. Frank spends the next week in a rush to pay off Milo. As the week goes on, he gets more and more desperate as clients don't pay him. Milo and his goon Radovan (Slavko Labovic) pursue Frank and even his closest friends prove untrustworthy. Every scheme he thinks of to get money or stall Milo backfires and the closer he gets to deadline, the more violent everything becomes.
Even though the opening of the Danish Pusher introduces each main character with an on-screen ID, it's still hard to tell them apart. That's partly a language barrier since you can't distinguish someone by their voice. And there are lots of guys with shaved heads. But after a good 45 minutes, Bodnia as Frank, distinguished himself and makes a gradual transition from indifferent to desperate. In the first half, he seems like he's sleepwalking, like most street dealers probably are. Once things start going bad, he conveys a human desperation that transcends the subtitles. Mikkelsen has a dangerous side that doesn't get explored nearly enough in the film. He falls out of the story once Frank really goes after his own clients. Buric as Milo, the head dealer, is typically cooler than his underlings, more sophisticated and dresses better. He's nonchalant when he threatens Frank, so you know he's really the deadliest of all.
In his first film, Nicolas Winding Refn does a solid job holding the story together and showing he can do a well-worn genre with a bit of style. If made in English, Pusher would at least be good enough for HBO, so the art house circuit is a given. Most of the film is shot handheld, which seems to be a filmmakers' go-to trick to make things feel "real." But while many filmmakers go overboard, shaking things so much that nobody's vision actually looks that jumpy, Refn keeps it under control, keeping everything important in the frame so you can still see everyone. The violence is explosive, not outlandish but exciting. When the characters become so desperate, they have no other choice but to start pulling out guns. There are no epic shootouts--just bang, bang, get away, which makes those few moments tense. You don't know who's going make it. But while the dealer's perspective is different, it's still not as interesting as users' films such as Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream. It's more like a TV show, the daily grind of being a pusher. There are two more films in the trilogy, so perhaps we'll see just how tense things get for these characters moving forward.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.