Pusher Three: I am the Angel of Death – Nicolas Winding Refn completes his ode to Goodfellas. (Film Review)

In 1990 Martin Scorsese  speaking about the making of Goodfellas, said he wanted to show the glamour of the gangster lifestyle in order to explain why people are attracted to it.  Around the same time Lorraine Bracco said in an interview that she felt she had to make her role powerful because the set was so male dominated she feared being moved to the cutting room floor. Given the 20/20 hindsight of over twenty years, Lorraine Bracco’s take on the filming of Goodfellas seems more likely.  I love Goodfellas as much as anyone who doesn’t worship Scorsese (and can see how much he took from Truffaut) but I would have to question the need to have a glamorous gangster film.  Weren’t they all prior to that time?

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Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy, while owing as much to Goodfellas as Goodfellas owes to Jules and Jim shows something we hadn’t seen before.  The unpleasant side of the gangster lifestyle.  And I don’t mean the violence or fear, although there is plenty of that. It reveals the pathetic  desperation these people live their lives by.  It shows gangsters supposedly swimming in money who support drab middle class looking lifestyles. It reveals drug pushers who have become junkies themselves. It shows unplanned deaths and drug induced violence that then has to be taken care of with great lucidity. No one is clever, smarter or more ruthless than anyone else. The living are lucky and the dead unlucky.  That’s it.

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While Goodfellas approaches this to a degree, there is no denying the “blokiness” Bracco referred to shines through, and character analysis is sorely lacking. Scorsese’s film is based on one novel that is one man’s account of mobster lifestyle. Refn’s films are based on his own meticulous research and include real characters from the Copenhagen underworld as actors in the films, and real sets he gained permission to film in. With the advantage of time, Refn as been able to take the Goodfellas idea to a place Scorsese was too afraid to go:  vulnerability.

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Pusher three: I am the angel of Death follows Serbian drug lord Milo on he day of his daughters birthday   He clumsily stumbles from obligations be they attendance at his narcotics anonymous meeting (!), dealing drugs, fighting off younger faster drug lords who want his business or cooking for his daughters party. Milo is the only character to appear in all three Pusher films and is definitely losing his power by the third. He is called “old” several times and in the end even his daughter is able to swindle him. Milo (Zlatko Burik ) looks fantastically haggard  and Refn is able to withdraw a brilliant performance from him as he breaks his moral codes and stumbles his way through his day. People die around Milo almost because he doesn’t quite know what else to do with them. Returning for this film is probably the most interesting henchman ever, Radovan (Slavko Labovic) a man who will seamlessly travel from his happy middle class existence as a restauranteur to slicing up dead bodies: warmly encouraging, philosophizing and coaching along the way.

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The story of Milo is a darkly comic one, and the growing sophistication of Refn’s film making is on show through the character sketch. Milo has a clownish appearance now, his hair curled and slicked back and his puffy face red and affected  It’s weird that we sense the comic, because the film is also more graphically violent than almost any other film you will see.  There is a clean up scene that would put both The Cleaner and The Wolf’s teeth on edge. The violence is graphic and overt. Therefore the comic aspects turn the film into a dire absurdity. Refn’s point is well made.  The pathos of Milo is palpable. He is remarkably powerless for a feared drug lord and in the end can only reach into his own history to get up the gumption to deal with the complexities of his day.

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Because he has poisoned his entire crew of thugs with his cooking, Milo finds himself alone and having to deal with the young drug lords trying to steal his territory. Milo is attending narcotics anonymous because he hates his life and wishes he could get out. Milo is aging, and he is losing his touch. He lets people get the better of him and then he doesn’t quite know what to do when they try to reason with him. If it all goes on long enough, he will swing a hammer and smash their skull in. This is the way Milo retains power.  Not through threats, but through elimination of the competition, an action borne of desperation. When Milo helps a young girl being sold into prostitution escape, we see his longing for a better relationship with his own spoilt daughter. When the film ends we know he won’t be able to keep this up.  Although there are images in the third half of the film that will churn your stomach, probably the most chilling scene of all is the image of the great Milo, standing by an empty (totally drained) pool staring into the dawn of another (fucking) day.

He is exhausted.  We are exhausted. And all there is to do is keep going.

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The filming is similar to the previous two, but where the tension is externalized in first two it is fully existent inside Milo in film three. Shots are indoors and on Milo’s territory.  The same hand held camera aesthetic is used, but the pacing is very different, because there is no one higher than Milo and therefore the pressures are literally a normal part of his day.   The largest stress of Milo’s day comes from having to cook for his daughters birthday.

If you have any interest in the Gangster genre, then this trilogy is a must. Enjoy!

(Lorraine Bracco’s quote in the opening paragraph is taken from  Linfield, Susan (September 16, 1990). “Goodfellas Looks at the Banality of Mob Life”. New York Times.

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