Young Nicolas Winding Refn's Pusher is reaching our distant shores after first being released in late 1996, around the time Breaking the Waves was first screened. Now Von Trier has some modest U.S. name recognition and is perhaps the closest the '90s have come to producing the heroic European filmmakers of yore. But it is Refn's gritty, clichéd and absorbing Pusher that set the box office records back home. It's hard to say why it took the film so long to show up at the Rice Media Center. Maybe it's because the story in its bare bones is so familiar.
Frank (played by the burly Kim Bodnia, a Bob Hoskins look-alike) is a Copenhagen drug dealer. By all appearances, the Danish capital has a lively -- for lack of a better word -- drug scene. (Remember those wild news stories of a couple of years back, when rival factions of Scandinavian Hell's Angels fought it out in Denmark with rocket launchers and other military ordnance, all over control of the drug trade?) Accompanied by his droogish buddy, Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), Frank lives the high life. Or rather, the life one can live by getting other people high. Despite all that, Frank is just a middleman, dependent on his good connections, principally Milo the Yugoslav (Zlatko Buric).
The film takes a day-by-day approach to a week in Frank's life. Early on, Frank and Tonny are making easy scores, driving around Copenhagen and talking very dirty, feeling up babes at various rave scenes and finally, after both are very drunk, pretending to knife each other to death in after-hours bars.
There's nothing very original about the pair, but as played by the gleamy-pated Mikkelsen and the brooding Bodnia, they are believable, vivid characters. Bodnia is particularly good, managing to suggest his character's inner life with great subtlety. Despite Refn's striking (but non-Dogma) filmmaking technique, a combination of fairly stately, European pacing, edgy handheld camera work and iffy lighting, Bodnia is the one who will either carry or sink the film. He has to make us care about a not particularly lovable man.
That's because Frank gets into considerable trouble. He already owes Milo a fair amount of money, and after talking him into producing 200 grams of "brown sugar" (how dated is that?), he owes him a lot more. But when the intended sale of the heroin goes awry and Frank loses the merchandise, he's suddenly into more debt than he can repay. Milo is skeptical of Frank's story and determined not to let Frank make a fool of him, so he sends his enforcer, Radovan (Slavko Labovic) after Frank, with the threat that he'll tear out his kneecaps if he doesn't pay. By Friday, Frank is down to counting the hours he has left.
All of this is terribly familiar, of course. And after Run Lola Run's brilliant reworking of very similar material, Pusher could feel particularly dated. But the film works because it manages to convey the sense that its disagreeable characters have off-screen lives in which they are not just criminals, but human beings with families, pets and weaknesses. Milo, for example, not only bakes cakes, but he's bad at it. Radovan wants to open a restaurant (that it will be a shish kebob place is rather menacing). The woman Frank loves -- the one he can't quite bring himself to touch -- has to get her dog to the vet.
Bodnia never plays for our sympathy, but his emotionally repressed Frank does get a touch of it. Troubled, limited manhood is seldom expressed as convincingly as it is here. Bodnia is compelling to watch, even if you don't exactly care if Frank lives or dies.
Pusher is not a great film. The familiarity of its subject matter gives it a low ceiling. But Kim Bodnia and the talented Refn make the most of what they have. I wonder what they've been doing since '96.
Pusher runs September 10 through 12 at the Rice University Media Center on the Rice campus. Call (713)527-8750 for more information.