Denmark (1996) Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

He might currently be best known for his lavish but polarising arty films that clash against the conventions of modern Hollywood but Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn served a more modest beginning to his filmmaking career in his homeland with this gritty debut, the first in a trilogy revolving around the seedy underbelly of drug dealing in Copenhagen.

In this opening chapter, we spend a week in the life of low-level drug dealer Frank (Kim Bodnia), often accompanied by his wild partner Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen). Neither takes the job seriously, underselling their product then blowing the money on a night out. Frank is approached by a former prison mate, Hasse (Peter Andersson) for some heroin with just 24 hour’s notice, and turns to his Serbian dealer Milo (Zlatko Burić).

Because Frank is already in debt to Milo, he is given one last chance provided he returns immediately with the money from the deal, but on the day of the exchange, the police intercept and Frank is arrested. Having thrown the heroin into the river and having no money on him, Frank is held for a day then let go, but Milo isn’t interested in this story and demands Frank finds his money or else.

This is a story of a man under pressure which has been told many times, but the twist is that Frank is a cog in a very dangerous and volatile machine that needs to keep running smoothly otherwise the consequences are fatal. It should come as no surprise that violence begets violence in this scenario as time runs out and Frank’s bad luck hits new lows.

Again this is not the most original of premises but Refn no frills presentation using handheld cameras and shot in natural light and an intimate, near documentary style approach, puts the audience right in the frame with Frank. The cast is a flawless mix of experienced actors, locals and friends of Refn, all of whom create a sense of authenticity to the proceedings.

Unlike other films in this genre, there is no memorable witty dialogue, flash action set pieces or any charismatic personalities that leap of the screen and into the cinematic pantheon of cool anti-heroes, just the stark realism of the grimy world of urban underground crime.

Refn was keen not to glamorise the life of the drug dealer, thus you won’t see any spotlessly lush penthouses, expensive cars, girls draping themselves over the drug lords – just the opposite: Milo runs his operation from a small café where he likes to bake, and his biggest visual extravagance is a typical 90’s gold chain. Aside from the slicked back hair, he’d look like any other average person.

This goes for Frank too, and to a lesser extent to Tonny, although his garish tracksuit is more a sign of the times than a sign of his wealth. Both enjoy the fruits of their labours, Tonny perhaps too much, being the more gregarious and unsubtle of the two. He tends to upset Frank, and everyone else, with his off-colour remarks and causes more trouble than he is worth.

Unfortunately for Tonny, their relationship comes to an abrupt and bloody end after frank becomes convinced that Tonny, who avoided arrest, grassed on him to the police. The only person Frank seems to be able to trust is Vic (Laura Drasbæk), a high-classed prostitute who looks after his stash. She is in love with him and while he likes her, he finds it hard to commit to a hooker.

Finding something about Frank that makes the viewer want to root for his him is difficult and that is exactly when Refn is aiming for here. This isn’t a man looking for redemption, this is a man who has burned his bridges in a world where trust is paramount yet is the most precious and rarest commodity of them all. Everybody is out for themselves and will betray their nearest and dearest for the upper hand.

Even as the pressure mounts, the deals fall through and Frank hits one problem after another, the pervasive feeling is that he brought it on himself by being involved in this scabrous and pernicious world the first place. But as Refn’s script, co-written with Jens Dahl, piles on the misery we are wholly invested in Frank’s plight and in how he is going to save his skin, in part because of the presence of Vic in his life.

Despite being just as culpable of earning ill-gotten money Vic is that small beacon of hope in Frank’s life, if only he would realise it but he can’t bring himself to. There is a running subplot of Vic’s dog needing an operation and Frank says he’ll be there for Vic and take her to the vets, but when push comes to shove he’ll abandon her (literally) if he can solve his problem with Milo first.

With an open ending that could lead us down many potential outcomes – none of which would appear to positive for Frank – the message that crime doesn’t pay comes through loud and clear yet this isn’t a film intent on proselytising, especially as the audience is essentially the choir. This is reality, this is happening under our noses, this is a sad reflection of our times (even after 20 years) regardless of location, and a stark essay of a man forced to fight fire with fire instead of just walking away.

Kim Bodnia will be mostly known as the amiable detective in The Bridge but here he is an unscrupulous lowlife trapped by his own actions, delineated through a nuanced and gut wrenching performance. Mads Mikkelsen is unrecognisable as bald headed waster Tonny, while Laura Drasbæk’s Vic is the closest thing to a sympathy figure.

I must confess that Refn’s Hollywood output (including a remake of this film) hasn’t appealed to me but Pusher is a sublime work, minimalist presentation that hits hard with maximum ferocity.