Your first impression of this five-hour-plus underworld trilogy is that director Nicolas Winding Refn is an engineer of epic scale and structural ambition, and that the tiny kingdom of Denmark is apparently a snake pit of narcotic squalor and homicidal chaos. (Distributor Magnolia is displaying no shortage of chutzpah itself in releasing all three simultaneously, a market-defying stunt it pulled in 2004 with Lucas Belvaux’s weave-world saga The Trilogy.) But the Pusher movies play less like features than like the nastiest hit TV series HBO never made, and a stateside cable remake does seem plausible. Shot handheld, dramatically focused not on large narrative arcs but vile criminal minutiae, and inhabited completely by scumbags dumbly searching for redemption they can’t put a name to, Refn’s films aren’t freestanding once their serial-ness becomes their defining character—just as with The Sopranos, the narrative’s forward motion is aiming at a vanishing point, not at closure. (Refn has said there may be more Pushers to come.)
Still, the textures of Refn’s wallow in bad behavior are completely convincing, if the plot-stuff is a little familiar and if the overarching notion that, as Quentin Tarantino said somewhere, “gangsters have kitchens, too” seems by now valid but no longer terribly fresh. Drug lords cook for parties, hit men dream about becoming restaurateurs. In the first Pusher (1996), first released here in 1999, the hero is Frank (Kim Bodnia—half Stanley Tucci, half Tom Sizemore), a mid-level dope dealer (apparently, “pusher” in Danish has different connotations: No one ever needs to “push”) who is successful and hardcore enough to live his days in a fast, fun-loving tear. Accompanied by his bullet-headed buddy/enforcer Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), Frank spends the movie’s first half-hour bopping from deal to whore to bar, cagily living it up. Bad news arrives, of course, in the offhand form of a score finagled with local kingpin Milo (Zlatko Buric) on credit, despite Frank’s looming debt. When the cops show up, Frank dives into a lake, taking the drugs with him. Now his debt to Milo is unmanageably huge, and as the thugs come looking for him, he begins a frantic, frustrated search for cash. Refn’s film—his first-—is alive with details: the conversations that you think will provide exposition but instead get completely sidetracked; the live-wire torture scene that ends, abruptly, when the lights go out; the way Frank, as the clock slowly runs out of time, becomes less expressive, not more.
Picking up this spare thread eight years later, after himself getting married and fathering a child, Refn focuses each subsequent film, perhaps perversely, on the one character from the previous entry you have no interest in learning more about. We don’t revisit exiled Frank in Pusher II (2004), but the irredeemably dim Tonny, last seen bludgeoned by Frank for leaking to the pigs, and now fresh from prison. Re-immersing himself in a daily cesspool of coke, dope deals, car thieving, and whores (the early scene in which Tonny argues with his own unresponsive penis as two disinterested working girls obey his frustrated commands is rankly funny), Tonny also tries to ingratiate himself with his recalcitrant father (Leif Sylvester Petersen), who can hardly trust him with a gopher job at his chop shop. The back-breaking straw is the appearance of a baby that Tonny’s old non-girlfriend (Anne Sorensen) claims is his; as the bitterness, betrayals, and wholesale fuckups snowball, Tonny begins (slowly, silently) to wonder if he should rewrite his life, and the fate of the neglected infant.
Pusher III (2005) trains in on Milo, the Balkan scag kingpin and Frank’s biggest problem from the first film. Here, he’s in Narcotics Anonymous and truly interested only in cooking a massive birthday feast for his 25-year-old daughter (Marinela Dekic). Meanwhile, an errant shipment of Ecstasy and a handful of Albanian and Polish crooks are perpetually mucking up the works, until bodies start dropping and Milo (Buric may be the unhealthiest-looking actor on earth), succumbing to a smack high, endures a hair-raising night’s journey into corpse disposal the meat-market-scrap likes of which we haven’t seen since Herschell G. “ 2,000 Maniacs” Lewis retired. Truly, Refn could keep going; there may be no limit to the fuzzy-underbelly-ness behind Copenhagen’s semi-industrial storefronts, even if you’re given reason to wonder, after many hours, if these buzz-seeking losers ever eat a square meal, feel any social remorse, or get any sleep.