Pusher II – With Blood On My Hands

Denmark (2004) Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn returns to the streets of Copenhagen for the second instalment in his Pusher trilogy after his first English language big budget film Fear X in 2002 bombed big time. Despite the eight-year gap between films the same gritty unfiltered tone and low-fi presentation of 1996’s first film remains for the sake of aesthetic continuity.

Also returning and assuming the main role this time around is unhinged druggie Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), previous playing a secondary role to the ill-fated drug dealer Frank whom we last saw in a very precarious predicament. We join Tonny as he is released from another stint in prison and heads back to his father, Semden (Leif Sylvester) known as The Duke, and secures work with him, albeit after some reluctance from Smeden.

Not only is Tonny up to his eyes in debt but he learns that he has a son with prostitute Charlotte (Anne Sørensen) though he refuses to believe the kid is his but in wanting to prove to his father he can be responsible, he offer to help Charlotte. To raise some cash Tonny agrees to accompany an old friend Kurt (Kurt Nielsen) as he buys some coke from Serbian dealer Milo (Zlatko Burić), which typically goes disastrously wrong.

It might be a bit cynical to chide Refn for returning to this film series after his attempt at the big time backfired but the end of the first film was motivation enough for film fans as well as Refn to welcome a follow up the story. Thankfully for both parties this move paid off, so we can’t criticise Refn for picking himself up and sticking to what he knows best.

One word that comes to mind when watching this film is “despair.” The characters are largely in despair through their own poor decisions and inability to upfront about anything; for the audience we are in despair at the horrors that unfold before our eyes, living through scenes of complete incredulity unless you happen to reside in a world of feckless decadence as Tonny and co. do.

Little has changed in terms of the entire cast being utterly reprehensible and amoral and Refn does nothing to glamorise their lifestyles. Nary a moment passes where someone isn’t ingesting some sort of drug – usually cocaine – and it its worst, children are present at possibly the tawdriest wedding refection ever, which includes a stripper (!) where the booze and other debauchery runs free.

At least they have the courtesy to take their drugs in the kitchen away from the kids, but when Charlotte considers getting high to be of greater concern than looking after her baby, leaving him with the incompetent Tonny, one truly despairs of the life of a junkie. Remarkably it is Tonny who steps up to take responsibility for the child and physically attacks Charlotte out of anger for her lousy parenting.

Unfortunately, moments later he is up to his neck in FAIL as he and Kurt (full name Kurt the Cu… let’s just stay with Kurt) try to cover up their earlier mess up in accidentally flushing away the cheap drugs they bought from Milo with money borrowed from Kurt’s mystery business partner. Providing some darkly comic moments this hapless double act digs themselves deeper into trouble but again, it is Tonny that shockingly learns his lesson the hard way.

For most of us it is difficult to imagine a world like the one Refn depicts in this series exists, and perhaps we have been spoiled somewhat by the many crime thrillers that have graced the silver screen before and after this one. In other words we have become accustomed to the over the top antics shown in these films so when something as raw and immediate as this comes along it still doesn’t feel real.

But what Refn does achieve here is to make us believe in it all by stripping away the faux glamour and implied power of this seedy underworld, and the grimy undercurrent of immorality and hopeless selfishness of the addicts. Adopting the same unfussy documentary style mise-en-scene of the first film, a jaunty, handheld camera captures the moments without judgement or didactic intent.

Nothing about this film suggests that anyone, especially Tonny, is likely to be on the road to redemption but this is the direction the signposts are pointing towards. Having been told to his face by his father that he is a waste of space and his much younger half-brother (with a prostitute mother) is placed above him in the affection stakes, Tonny is trapped between trying to prove himself to Semden and making it on his own.

It befalls to Mads Mikkelsen to convey all of this as the perpetual waster Tonny but he delivers what is a career best performance (until The Hunt) that is awkward, pitiful and repellent with rare flickers of growing humanity in the final act. Mikkelsen is not afraid to expose himself emotionally and literally in this role, as the blackly comedic session with two prostitutes in which Tonny can’t perform demonstrates.  

So natural and nuanced is the performance, right down to little foibles, subtle facial expression and body language quirks, we forget we are watching an internationally renowned actor and instead, some real life chav junkie who happens to have walked in front of a camera. The rest of the cast are able to stay in synch with Mikkelsen’s tempo in creating this line-up of amoral lowlife scumbags, but his presence is to magnetic to be overshadowed.

Behind the drug fuelled haze of crime and irresponsibility Pusher II presents us with a story that paints a bleak picture of a hopeless suburban existence, yet manages to ironically end on an incongruously hopeful note. The journey is gnarly, uncomfortable and pervasively sordid but compelling nonetheless, paving the way for the highly anticipated third and final chapter.

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