I learned last year during my 60/60 Project on my own site that when it comes to crime films, the ones centering around drugs typically interested me the least (Hell, even with Pulp Fiction, my least favorite part is the Uma Thurman section). I didn’t know what it was about them, but I just could not get into them for some reason. But now, after watching this, I think I’ve figured it out. The film follows Frank (Kim Bodnia), a drug pusher with incredibly bad luck. He’s already in debt to drug lord, Milo (Zlatko Buric), but he takes one more favor and gets a lot of drugs to pull off a deal with a guy Frank was in prison with. But the deal goes bust when the cops show up and Frank loses all the drugs in a lake. With seemingly the world against him, Frank is running against the clock to get the money he owes Milo before it’s too late.
I realized while watching this that the reasons I typically can’t get into drug-related films are 1) The characters aren’t likable or relatable to me and 2) the focus of these characters is usually either gaining power or looking to make their next score. And character is really important to me in any form of fiction. Even if you have a non-existant plot, if you have strong or interesting characters, I can overcome the former issue. Fortunately, Pusher doesn’t fall into those problems.
What I noticed first off was that these characters are human. Their entire existence isn’t drugs or power or any of that. Frank and his best friend, Tonny, goof around and act normal on their down time. They have some great dialogue together, and the first 30 minutes of the film is really there to make you feel for these characters and the relationships they build with each other. Even later it discusses the lives of other characters, like Frank’s kinda-girlfriend, Vic. Even more than that, there’s a great scene where Milo’s right-hand man, Radovan, is talking with Frank about wanting to open up a restaurant and get out of the business. But what I loved about that scene was how it wasn’t like every other “This is my dream to get out of this bad business” scene in these types of films. Instead, it was just a normal, lighthearted conversation. In other words, this film builds some good, realistic characters who I can really get behind and sympathize with.
Frank in particular is incredibly easy to root for. I mean, he’s a drug pusher and isn’t the greatest person in the world, but he has some of the worst luck ever. Things just get worse and worse for the guy, one thing right after the other. And it’s not like he really did anything wrong (in his world) to be put in this situation. It was just a combination of terrible timing and the luck of Job (biblically speaking). And when he gets betrayed by people, it hits pretty hard since the film builds up relationships very well.
Like Refn’s other films, there’s a lot of sudden extreme violence. And while the film might not be as artistically or stylishly made as Drive–or even Bronson–you can see that same cinematic eye beginning to come together. It doesn’t linger on the blood or make a big deal out of it. It’s just part of whatever is going on at the time. And I think not stylizing it or glorifying its use like practically every other action or thriller film adds a layer of gritty realism to the film.
All of that being said, the movie isn’t perfect. It feels about 20 minutes too long and could have been trimmed down a bit. I felt it right before the third act (where he has about 2 hours left). There’s a chunk of the movie that focuses on him and Vic that just kinda goes on for a while and could have been cut down. Yeah, it’s building up their relationship, but it does so for just a wee bit too long and slows down the pacing of the film.
But otherwise, I think this was a good start. I think Netflix knew my aversion to drug-related films and scored it low, but this is one of the rare instances where I think I’d score it a star higher than suggested. It’s a really good little thriller (and I’m currently watching/reviewing the entire trilogy on my own site). It ends with a to-be-continued kind of feel to it, though the other films don’t really pick up where this left off (only hints at things). So it works just fine as a stand-alone, even if a few things are left slightly incomplete.