Pusher – A young director leaves the womb. (Film Review)

Nicholas Winding Refn is an excellent director.  However, he made Pusher when he was twenty-four and, considering he comes from strong film family stock, I would have to say his lack of maturity shows. There are some writing problems and it seems almost every scene has been pulled from The Battle of Algiers, which Winding Refn does acknowledge when he lists that film as one of his top ten in his Criterion list. In another quote Winding Refn makes a small comment about wanting to piss his mother off (Vibeke Winding) by making films that are nothing like the French new wave, which both his parents adore. Interestingly he cites The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the film he used for this task, but when I watched Pusher, I had a strong feeling that this was a film by a young man trying to irritate his mother.

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“I grew up in a cinema family,” says Refn, who is the son of a filmmaker father (Anders Refn) and cinematographer mother (Vibeke Winding). “My parents were brought up on the French New Wave. That was God to them, but to me it was the antichrist, and how better to rebel against your parents than by watching something your mother is going to hate, which were American horror movies. When I saw Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I realized: I don’t want to be a director, I don’t want to be a writer, I don’t want to be a producer, I don’t want to be a photographer, I don’t want to be an editor, I don’t want to be a sound man. I want to be all of them at once. And that film proved that you can do it because that movie is not a normal movie.” (Directors Guild Of America)

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Pusher is a little bit ‘white-college-boy’, if you know what I mean by that.  Made in 1996, if it looked stylistically like The Battle of Algiers, creatively it is very similar to Goodfellas which was made six years earlier but had a tremendous impact on the ‘mob’ film genre. Pusher is still very good, and the kind of film any first film maker would be thrilled to call their own, but it forced me to ask questions about why we enjoy these kinds of films rather than give me anything interesting to chew over. This is largely due to writing problems.  Plot holes exist such as:  Frank’s invitation to sell to the ‘Swedes’ was obviously set up by the police, and Frank’s falling for it highly unbelievable. For me it made the film seem a bit silly – why would someone so street smart be pulled into something I can see through in a moment?

Add to this a clunky dialogue when it comes to Frank and his relationship with his girlfriend and the film looked a lot like we were following someone for a week who should have been shot dead ten years earlier; Or who I am going to take a gun to any minute now if he keeps irritating me.

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However, what is  fresh and original, is the complex relationship Frank has with his own lifestyle. It isn’t explored as well as it could be in film one, however in film two and three (Pusher two is made seven years and two films later and Pusher three is made the year after that) this hot young director really comes into his own. He is clever enough to have seen what worked and what didn’t in his first film (despite its success) and following his intuition, he’s built a trilogy that will stand out in history, because of the second two films.

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Watching Pusher, I was forced to ask the question, as I did in Killing them Softly, why are we so attracted to mob films – and more importantly, why are they/or we think they are, so well made? If you’re willing to show a little gore, if you’re willing to do something shocking like bludgeon a man with a baseball bat, (surely one of the most overdone clichés of this genre) you are likely to a certain kind of cult status as a great film maker. These displays of violence, book ended by drugs, boobs and money are hardly fresh, yet they excite the shadow of our good behavior – the dark side we think (hope) we are always keeping at bay. Watching these films involves a connection with the ‘evil side of me’ that I always secretly think bubbles below my well-behaved democratic capitalist surface. These bad-boys are the shadow of a good society after all.  From Edward G Robinson, through Humphrey Bogart to Joe Pesci, we can’t help being fascinated with their lives. Just as the drug addicts mantra is “I can quit any time”, we watch these films thinking “I could be that – I choose not to.”

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We are in desperate need of mob films that remove the glamor sparked by subversive behavior. Pusher two and Pusher three cover this territory in extremely interesting ways – which I will discuss in the reviews of those films. As I stated above, something Winding Refn does touch on in this film is the connection between emotions and actions in these men. Where Goodfellas shows “tough guys”, Pusher reveals the tears in Franks eyes as he walks from the scene of beating up his best friend who he thinks (why don’t these people EVER bother finding out for sure) has betrayed him to the police. Just like Frank, we never find out if Tonny has committed this grievous sin, and like Frank we are saddened when the young man has been savagely beaten. In a way, it is that moment, and not the bungled drug sale that marks Frank’s life as over as he knows it. We need to see these films in an unglamorous light because of what that will reveal to us about ourselves and about why we love them.  Why we have so much respect for them.

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My final word on Pusher is this – why don’t women make these kinds of films?  That would be something!

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