Being an auteur is no easy gig. To write, direct and produce your own films you need a singular vision and an ego-charged dose of self-belief. Making it work can mean cinematic history, failing can render you a footnote in the ‘what not to do’ chapter of ‘Filmmaking for Dummies.’ And if both your parents are filmmakers, then the pressure’s really on.
Known as ‘l'Enfant Sauvage’ (wild child) in his native Denmark, Nicolas Winding Refn is one auteur unafraid of his own brilliance. At 46, he’s humbly starred in two feature-length documentaries about, well, himself. He also knows firsthand the highs and lows of the visionary. His first English language film Fear X (2003) sent him bankrupt, while Drive with Ryan Gosling won him Best Director at Cannes in 2011.
He likes his films to have mixed reactions. If everyone can agree on a film’s value, he reasons, there must be something shallow about it. Bronson (2008) was critically acclaimed. The recent Neon Demon is baffling critics and Only God Forgives (2013) is, let’s face it, barely watchable.
Refn says being dyslexic made him a better filmmaker. The nerdish collector of Japanese robots and Thunderbirds didn’t learn to read until 13 and instead made strong connections with images; mainly ultra-violent. Born in 1970, being a teen in the early eighties was a fortuitous time for an aspiring filmmaker. Video stores just opened and previously inaccessible quirks of world cinema came to every bean bag. It’s little wonder he has VHS nostalgia for the likes of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (also at SBS On Demand) and Kubrik’s The Shining, but his greatest source of inspiration? The glamouriser of high-end lowlife, Martin Scorsese.
Just over two decades ago, the then 24-year-old hit the jackpot. He was given millions of kroners to turn a short film he’d made into a full blown epic, and twenty years on, The Pusher is still brutalising screens with its hand held, near epileptic trip through Copenhagen’s noir-lit crime scene. Kinetic, violent and just good fun, the resulting trilogy Pusher (1996), Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands (2004), and Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death (2005) is a triptych of extremis painted with a chainsaw dipped in human failure.
Frank and Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen’s debut) are track-suited ne'er-do-wells loitering in Copenhagen’s drug scene. Frank’s girlfriend Vic’s a ‘champagne girl’ at a city strip club - ‘I could be somebody if I wanted to’ – and shoots heroin to blot it out when she gets home. Frank’s intimacy issues are spectacular. He won’t sleep with Vic because she’s a prostitute and when she tries to kiss him, he slaps her.
A bad heroin deal sees Frank owe big money to Croatian gangster Milo; played brilliantly by Zlatko Buric, the real star of these three films. With Milo on his case and desperate to keep his kneecaps, there’s no one Frank won’t sell out and pretty soon this rat realises there’s no exit from the sewer where everyone’s ripping off everyone else. Snorting his way round town he yields little sympathy, but fortunately, we don’t have to like him to enjoy the spectacle, made even more edgy by its documentary feel.
Watch 'Pusher' at SBS On Demand
Pusher 2 reintroduces Mads Mikkelsen’s Tonny. Out of jail, he’s ‘re-established’ he tells his dad. But what the vocabulary challenged parolee meant to say, is what he most definitely isn’t, ‘rehabilitated’. His dad’s the kind of ‘father of the year’ who hires a stripper to perform with a candle at his own daughter’s wedding, and soon gives his boy Tonny a job; stealing cars.
We want to like Tonny. He’s trying to get his life together, especially after he learns he’s fathered a kid to a druggy mum who hasn’t even bothered to name the baby, but when all your friends are crims on the make, going straight isn’t easy. If we didn’t feel for Tonny, it would all be hilarious, but Refn steers us into the kind of social-realist territory done so well by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers. The real power is in the scenes with no pumping soundtrack, stripped back to real life ambience, and the third instalment picks up the story of ageing drug lord Milo, trying to pull himself together at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
Watch 'Pusher 2' at SBS On Demand
It’s his daughter’s birthday and Milo has to cook for fifty people. When a shipment of heroin turns out to be 10,000 ecstasy pills, Milo gets into trouble with the new generation of crims muscling into his territory. Looking one cigarette from a heart attack, Milo’s story is the most solemn and reflective of the trilogy, careening into a visceral climax, not for the squeamish. It’s a revelation to remember Zlatko Buric is only acting.
The colour blind Nicolas Winding Refn likes his worlds to bleed. He shoots them red. Lots of neon and seediness, sex glazing the air round fluoro-lit night-birds pursuing pleasures that make them eternally desperate. Lives are so stripped back to the next score, they blaze bright. In an affluent country like Denmark, the crimes here don’t arise completely from necessity, but boredom. Still, no matter how hard Frank, Tonny and Milo try, they seemed trapped in their class, as prisoners of destiny.
There’s a sense of defibrillation about these films. They get the heart racing as we fly-on-the-wall into lives we’re glad aren’t ours, but by the end of the journey, just like the characters who can’t get enough, what we really crave is more and more, and it’s good to know there’s talk of a Pusher 4.