Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
So yeah, Pusher 3 is not a horror film. Nor was Pusher 2, nor was the original Pusher. But this is Dread Central, right? If there’s a pervading tone in all of these amazing films about the criminal underground in Copenhagen, it most certainly is dread. In fact, “dread central” would be a fitting term to describe the seedy urban underbelly that these shadowy drug dealers and street thugs inhabit.
I can probably justify its inclusion as a review here on a gorehound level, but I wouldn’t feel right about selling the film solely on those dubious merits. Yes, it is incredibly violent and bloody, but these things are an integral part of the story and lifestyle being depicted. One gets the impression that Refn wants you to see and feel it exactly as these monstrous Mafiosos do, in real time with no opportunity to look away.
This film is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. It’s ultimately a gangster film, but people looking more for Goodfellas or Sopranos might feel bludgeoned by the heaviness of the Pusher series. Refn has a masterful style that is bordering on docu-realism. It never feels like actors playing characters; it always seems like the real thing is unraveling before your eyes.
The reason for this is that along with the main actors, Refn actually cast real gangsters and dealer types from the Copenhagen underground. Rather than simply choosing these fellows for the right authentic look, he carefully observed how they behaved and literally had them act as they themselves would respond in any of the tense and deadly scenarios that transpire.
He also shot the entire Pusher series in chronological order production-wise. To explain, the first scene you see in the film is the first scene that was shot. The last scene that you see in the film is the last scene that was shot. It’s all linear, meaning Refn wouldn’t get bogged down in trying to explain to non-actors why they’re supposed to be portraying any given emotion in the scene at hand. Everyone present on the shoot would know at all times exactly what happened before in the plot and exactly what will happen after, so it always makes sense to everyone what is going on in the moment. In addition, the chronological shooting order means the actors are generally fresher at the start of the film and more haggard by the end. Considering what happens in between, it makes sense that they’d look a little worse for wear by the time the last reel is over. (An interesting side note: One character, The King of Copenhagen, actually went to prison after this movie was filmed, and Refn had to take the film to him in jail so he could see the final product. Crazy!)
The result of all this streamlined effort is a grim realism never seen in this genre. Even Scorcese’s masterful and raw Mean Streets seems like a stylized narrative presentation compared to what we see and feel in the Pusher films.
The plot is comparable to the previous two entries in the series. A shipment of drugs arrives and the transaction is bungled, meaning someone is left holding a highly undesirably empty bag. In the original Pusher head honcho Milo (Zlatko Buric) was enraged by a deal gone wrong, and we saw how menacing he became when he was out for blood from those who owed him money. This time he’s on the receiving end of things; he’s been swapped ecstasy for heroin, and being an old school junk magnate, he’s not sure how to unload these party pills on a younger crowd. Milo gets a proposition from a younger guy, the cocky and impatient fellow who goes by the moniker The King of Copenhagen. Milo is unsure whether to trust this guy, but he gives in, and off the drugs go to be pawned to some unseen buyer.
The drugs don’t come back. The money doesn’t show up. It was all supposed to be turned around in one hour, and the guys Milo got the drugs from are now very, very pissed off. Instead of capping Milo right then and there, they decide to humiliate him by showing up at his restaurant and making him wait on them hand and foot. On top of all this, it’s Milo’s daughter’s 25th birthday, he’s trying to organize the food and make sure everyone has a good time, and he needs to make it to his Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Talk about a full plate!
Tension is evident from frame one in Pusher 3, but once these guys start goading Milo and pushing his buttons, you suddenly become aware that things are only one step away from exploding. And things blow up with a fury – Refn’s style is like a deadly snake coiled up in a basket; you know that if you keep looking long enough, it’s going to strike at you. Milo’s rage leads to some extremely bloody situations, the apex of which is a dismemberment scene that’ll leave you pale.
Stylistically Refn has made a more atmospheric film this time around. In the previous films the hard living context was bolstered by sudden injections of hard rock music that kept the adrenaline pumping. This time he uses gloomy synthesizer and grating noise loops that put you constantly on edge. One audio flourish that stuck in my head was the intermittent sound of a gambling machine in a back room of Milo’s restaurant while a nasty scene was unraveling – it was a weird and deliberate touch that had a brilliant atmospheric effect. Visually? I’m guessing, but I think this has to have been shot on 16mm film. The hand-held, gritty quality brings to mind the aesthetic of British filmmaker Alan Clarke – the styles are so similar that it would be interesting to find out if Refn was directly influenced by Clarke’s work.
This is great third entry in a series that is of consistent quality through and through. You don’t need to see them all to see Pusher 3. There are loose character and narrative links in the series, but like real life, there is never a beginning or end to anything, which is another characteristic that makes these films unique and challenging.
4 1/2 out of 5