I first became aware of Nicolas Winding Refn at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, with the dark and somewhat self-consciously ominous, Valhalla Rising. These movies are much more purposeful, set amidst the drug trade of Copenhagen. Dealers and pushers alike, living on the edge. A teetering ponzi scheme of buy-sell-buy before the money is due. When things go wrong, they go really, really wrong.
Refn’s eye never wavers from the violence, although yours may turn away from the screen in some places. Refn seems to delight in those details that bring and show pain. All three films are leavened with some humor to offset the violence. Kim Bodnia as Frank is terrific, a mid-level pusher who gets squeezed from all sides. His partner, young Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), actually speaks in this film (unlike in Valhalla Rising). He’s manic and really just wants to please his buddy Frank. Milo, the local kingpin (Zlatko Buric) wants to be liked, but business is business. Sometimes measures are called for.
Pusher 2: With Blood on My Hands, finds Tonny getting released from jail. Trying to live up to his father’s expectations (they are not much for him), trying to make a go of it – if not legit, at least trying to stay out of jail. But there’s always Milo and others with easy money to be made.
Finally, in I’m the Angel of Death: Pusher III, the story moves straight on to Milo. Milo is getting on in years. It’s becoming a young man’s game. Ecstasy? He knows heroin and coke, but he’ll leave the pills, thank you. Younger, more aggressive thugs are nipping at Milo from all sides – and from a wider swath of Eurasia: Turkey, Albania, Poland, Macedonia. Even his daughter, who is celebrating her birthday and her engagement, makes a move on her father’s business.
Refn tops himself here in the gore department as Milo and his former #1 Radovan butcher and gut two other low-lifes. Not for the faint of heart (or stomach), but Refn captures a certain gritty vitality in this trilogy. Trilogy? The door is left open for another, actually. As in all three films, there is no final resolution.