Either way, a good entry for Nicholas Winding Refn because years later in 2011 Drive came out!
Later on, I'll be touching upon this story's problems, of which there are oh so very, very many, but the subject matter itself has some meat to it, being an ostensibly realistic portrait of the lives of drug dealers, both as humans and men of criminal business, with an intricate attention to detail that bores more than immerses, but still has fascinating elements, undercut by shortcomings, both natural and consequential. A good bit of potential to this story concept is met by questionable areas, made all the more glaring by questionable areas within the telling of the story, but potential still stands, and light upon it can sometimes be found through effective moments in direction. Both as co-writer and director, Nicolas Winding Refn takes a very meditative approach to this subject matter, and such a storytelling style is distancing more than it is immersive, though there are times where the shaky, realistic filming style and thoughtfulness prove to be genuinely effective in drawing you into this environment, whose immersion value, of course, goes augmented by heights in intensity, seen through an audacious attention to danger and violence. Needless to say, lowlights outweigh highlights, arguably by a considerable margin, but highlights are still there to immerse, and for this, credit is not solely due to Winding Refn's hit-or-miss onffscreen performance, but also due to consistently sharp performances. Granted, the performances perhaps never slip-up because acting material feels relatively limited in this drama which mostly focuses on people simply being people, no matter how low-down and rotten, but the leads always have a certain charisma that almost sustains a reasonable bit of engagement value, which is decidedly sustained on the occasions in which dramatic layers are played up by this talented cast. As with most of these mediocre naturalist art film, the problem isn't incompetent filmmaking, it's questionable filmmaking, because no matter how well-done this film is in certain places, faulty ideas undercut engagement value, though not to where you can disregard the areas in the final product that are indeed done well. Still, those areas are far from abundant enough for you, or at least me, to come close to forgiving the final product for its many questionable moves, many of which aren't even all that unique.
The film is regarded as the first major Danish crime film, and in that context, you'd better believe that this thing was brand-spanking-new, but even by 1996, you needed only to look long enough through cinemas of other cultures to find subject matter of this nature explored time and again, even in this naturalist fashion, whose questionability is brought more to light by the familiarity, which also somehow manages to drive predictability into all of the aimlessness, exacerbated by some seriously draggy pacing. Considering the problematic storytelling style that Nicolas Winding Refn takes to this film, meandering was going to be a serious issue, but there's no excuse for the film to be as draggy as it ultimately is, bloating itself with only so much fat around the edges when it comes to substance, and a whole heap of excess to filler, whose limitations in liveliness challenge your attention about as much as pacing problems, in general, challenge the focus of storytelling itself. Two years before this film, Quentin Tarantino unveiled "Pulp Fiction", which was one of the more innovative bits in the aforementioned plentiful load of naturalist crime thrillers of this type, and rewarded in spite of its achieving its two-and-a-half-hour-long runtime largely through meandering excesses in filler and dialogue, but Winding Refn, as writer, accompanied by Jens Dahl, doesn't know what he's doing, offering only so much to keep you drawn to the drama through all of its excessiveness, which ends up directing your attention more and more toward natural shortcomings. I don't know if it's fair to call some of the biggest problems with this narrative natural, because Winding Refn didn't have to make an arty, subjective meditation on the day-to-day lives of drug dealers, but that's the story he's drawn, and let me tell you, even on paper, it barely works, outlining a narrative that meanders to no end, thriving on aimless filler that tries to immerse you, but typically doesn't, partly because the usual audience member isn't likely to relate to these characters and their stories enough to see the world through their eyes, or even like them. Even when you disregard problematic characters and their situations, this meandering, distancing type of narrative concept is mighty difficult to pull off with compellingness, and as you can imagine, the aforementioned draggy plot structuring is not the way to go, especially when you make matters all the worse with a distancing flaw that solidifies the final product as just downright disengaging: atmospheric limpness. Again, Winding Refn's naturalist directorial approach to this subject matter is sometimes pretty effective in immersing you, especially when, you know, something actually happens in this blasted do-little plot, but on the whole, Winding Refn's direction is mostly distancing, making quiet and cold meditations upon nothingness that stiffen pacing, and therefore give you a chance to ponder upon all of the dragginess to storytelling, resulting in a near-punishing dullness that rarely abates, and thoroughly disengages. Sure, what might save the film most from contempt is its simply being too bland to be bad, and genuinely engaging attributes sure do help, but the final product is also too bland to be enjoyable, having a certain potential that is all but obscured by hopelessly aimless, dull and even familiar storytelling that ultimately crafts a mediocre "effort".
Overall, the concept of realistically approaching gritty subject matter is kind of interesting on paper, and is brought to life enough by highlights in meditative storytelling and charismatic, when not dramatically layered lead performances enough for the final product to escape contempt, but there's no getting around the familiarity and meanderings of this naturalist, do-little story concept, whose near-painfully draggy and atmospherically cold storytelling establishes an overwhelming dullness that drives Nicolas Winding Refn's "Pusher" into mediocrity as yet another misguided art crime "thriller".
2/5 - Weak
Kinetic direction, convincing performances and a realistic portrayl of a criminal underworld elevate this low budget flick above the usual glorification-of-crime films of this genre. I'm not sure I'd want to watch it again in a hurry, and that's meant as a compliment - this is powerful stuf.
Favorite Scene: Frank and Tony have a "play knife fight" at a bar. Looks like it was slowed down in post. Very Cool.
Frank's ex-sidekick from the first film, Tonny, wonderfully played by Mads Mikkelsen is fresh out of prison. Tonny is eager to prove his worth as earner and son to his crime boss father (Leif Sylvester Petersen), known as the Duke. Routinely called a loser by everyone he knows -- he practically invites abuse by sporting a tattooed "respect" on the back of his bald head. Tonny also tries to ingratiate himself with his recalcitrant father (Leif Sylvester Petersen), who can hardly trust him with anything. The back-breaking straw is the appearance of a baby that Tonny's old non-girlfriend (Anne Sorensen) claims is his. The bitterness and betrayal mounts as Tonny begins to wonder if he should rewrite his life, and the fate of the neglected infant.
At its core, the film about is about broken families and serves as a stark reminder of the lasting effects on our actions can have on future generations. Tonny's entire life has been spent on only one thing: trying to gain the approval of his father. And not only that he learns on his release that he is very likely the father of a baby boy, one so neglected by his junkie mother that he hasn't even been given a name yet. Refn is painting a bleak picture of a child without a chance. He is in complete control behind the camera, but this film belongs purely and simply to Mikkelsen. He is absolutely stunning, flawlessly embodying the insecurities and desire that drives Tonny. Against all odds, Tonny becomes a sympathetic hero in an increasingly tragic tale. It's not hard to spot the need that drives his self-destructive behavior: it's practically written all over his face - or at least the back of his head.