The Criminal Underworld of Nicholas Winding Refn
Published on July 27th, 2012 | by John Bleasdale0
Nicholas Winding Refn has recently emerged as a talent to be watched, but his career has been marked all the way through by an obstinate oddness. “Bronson” (2008) is bonkers, “Valhalla Rising” (2009) is deliriously crazy, and “Drive” (2011) is no less bananas than the others, despite its popularity. The choice of eighties music and the “Electric Dreams” font of the title sequence have been widely noted, but other oddities persist throughout the film, none more so than Ryan Gosling’s character, a man who is at once mawkishly sentimental about protecting a young family and psychopathically violent at doing it. A mix of Patrick Bateman and Shane—the jacket, the toothpick, the quietly spoken threats of homicidal violence—he is the genuine American Psycho Hero. But anyone following the young Danish director’s career will be satisfied to see a progression that shows very little sign of dilution or compromise.
Refn made his feature film debut in 1996 with “Pusher,” a low-budget street-level gangster film set in the alleys and parking lots of Copenhagen. Having initially made it as a short to ensure his entry into film school, Refn decided to expand it into a feature and abandon the more traditional academic approach to his career. The story is familiar enough. A mid-level dealer, Frank (played by the Tom Sizemore-like Kim Bodnia), finds his way deeper and deeper into trouble with a local boss, Milo (Zlatko Buric), while at the same time contending with his madcap but possibly treacherous friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) and his prostitute girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbaek). What lifts “Pusher” out of the post-Tarantino ordinary is its insistent realism. Despite the overfamiliarity of many concepts (the fuck-up friend seems a constant, from “Mean Streets” to “The Pope of Greenwich Village”), the high quality of the acting and Refn’s obvious interest in the details of his characters’ lives makes for a compellingly real universe. The uncertainty and paranoia that seem to be inevitable are never resolved in the film and the “Pushing” of the title is as much Refn as director as the main character’s dealing.
And that should have been that. The film was a huge commercial success in Denmark and Refn went on to “Bleeder” (1999) and bigger and better things, but when his production company found itself in financial difficulty Refn decided to cash in on his earlier success and make a trilogy. This has to be one of the happier “selling out” stories. The “Pusher” trilogy has a coherence and accumulative power, with each film not only adding something original to the story but giving the impression of a world, an entire subculture, which the films only partially inhabit. The characters themselves grow and mature. For the second film (2004) Mads Mikkelsen, despite having in the meantime become a much bigger star, returns as Tonny, Frank’s battered friend. Frank is entirely out of the picture. Just as Frank was charismatic without being sympathetic, so Tonny is weirdly endearing while at the same time being a bone-headed loser. On leaving prison, Tonny tries to get work with his crime-boss father, Smeden (Leif Sylvester), who is reluctant to take him on. No matter what he tries to do to impress his father, Tonny ends up winning only his further disdain, especially in comparison to his young stepbrother and his cousin, who is explicitly referred to as like a son. Tonny’s knuckleheaded enthusiasm, his bright-eyed and opportunistic thieving and violence, sees him bouncing around a dangerous environment, heedless of the risks. In an early scene before leaving prison, Tonny clobbers a fellow inmate before running away and getting beaten by his victim and his pals. No motivation is given and, although Tonny’s attack is obviously premeditated, it’s clear from its inevitable consequences that Tonny hadn’t thought it through. In fact, Tonny doesn’t think anything through.
Faced with reality on the outside, the constant humiliations which seem to be part and parcel of his relationship to his father and his own newly acquired status as the father of a small baby, Tonny, like each protagonist in the three films, looks set to be on a collision course with the world he has come from. That world is consistent throughout the films, with relatively minor characters reappearing throughout the trilogy. Refn’s criminal underworld is never cool. It doesn’t even have the shoddy glamour of early Scorsese. The tanning parlors, the kitchens, the nightclub jakes, twenty-four-hour pick-up garages, the cramped bars and brothels are seedy enough to reek of cigarette smoke cutting through the smell of spilt drink and piss. The world is thoughtlessly misogynistic: an engagement party has a lap dancer for the enjoyment of all the male members of the family (children included) while female relatives look on in silent, bitter humiliation. And the drug use which takes place, and which is the world’s financial engine, has a famished joyless quality.
The final film (2005) deals with Milo, the Serbian drug dealer who would have worked for Frank in the first film had be been given the chance, but although Refn’s world is consistent, it isn’t immobile. Times have changed and ten years down the line, Milo has gained a few pounds, a drug problem of his own, and some serious young rivals. If Tonny’s predicament of usurpation and filial disappointment could be compared to that other great Dane, Hamlet, so Milo is a latter-day Lear as he sees his kingdom coming apart even as he prepares to cook for his daughter’s twenty-fifth birthday party. Milo is no longer on the pulse. His henchmen have all got food poisoning, the youngsters give him lip, and he can’t tell the difference between one drug and another. And yet there is that in him that made him what he was: “I will do such things… what they are yet I know not.” Whereas Frank and Tonny had more or less a week to reach their meltdown point, Milo has but twenty-four hours. Within each character there is something redeemable, a certain level of decency below which they aren’t willing to go. They all can be pushed too far.
The horror of Milo’s last act is that it probably won’t be his last act. Violence for Refn can be Grand Guignol excess; or it can be workaday taking care of business. For Milo, this isn’t the overused banality of evil, but rather the dirty job that needs to be done. This is W. H. Auden’s executioner’s horse scratching itself against the tree. The laborious, smelly and exhausting violence that concludes the trilogy is a dark vision of the criminal underworld as just hellishly odd.