With Drive making its much-anticipated US debut this weekend, I thought it was a good time to finally acquaint myself with the cultishly adored films with which director Nicolas Winding Refn made his reputation.

One of the more storied debuts of the 1990s came in 1996, when 25-year-old Nicolas Winding Refn of Denmark shocked and awed Europe with Pusher, a bleak and brooding and altogether nasty study of life in the seedy underworld of Copenhagen. In a story almost too just-so to believe, it was expanded from a short Winding Refn made for his film school adaptation; upon being denied entry, he devoted himself to raising the money to make the feature himself, becoming so embroiled in the creation of the work that he turned down the school's later offer to let him in, anyway. An anecdote that might or might not have a whole lot to say about the movie, though I hope it makes all the other wannabe indie filmmakers feel as bad about themselves as I do.

The film was a major hit - "major", anyway, given the tiny scope of its creation - and the seeds were planted for Winding Refn's eventual emergence as an Artist of Note in the field of violent action thrillers cut with oddly experimental impulses that gave all his films the patina of arthouse respectability; but that would be a few missteps in the future. In the meantime, let us restrict ourselves to the thing itself: a few days in the life of Frank (Kim Bodnia), a lower-middle tier drug dealer unimportant enough to work the streets himself, but big enough that he can boss the other dealers around. Without getting too bogged down in all the plot details, Frank owes money to local narcotics bigwig Milo (Zlatko Burić), and thanks to a deal that goes spectacularly wrong, he ends up owing quite a lot more, and Milo offers him a short window of time in which to make good on the debts before Frank ends up dead in a gutter somewhere.

Every single plan Frank makes ends up going wildly off the rails, and it's not so very hard to squint really tight and see Pusher as a warped farce; given the famously upbeat Scandinavian sense of humor, I'm not prepared to concede that the film isn't at some remove, a comedy so damn black that it sucks all the funny back into its ravenous event horizon. At any rate, the busy cross-section of whores, thugs, mobsters, and junkies that Frank crosses paths with includes his prostitute girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbæk), his unhinged skinhead sidekick Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen, in the role that kickstarted his career), and Milo's peculiarly kind enforcer Radovan (Slavko Labović), who acts as the Jiminy Cricket in this immeasurably seedy world, trying to help Frank get out of this with all his parts intact but unable to help though the dealer's epically poor judgment and worse luck.

It's all sort of dismayingly unexceptional: outstandingly well-done for a first-time director with no formal training on a shoestring budget, but something about it is unappealingly typical. Oh, yawn, another nihilistic European crime drama where even the nicest characters are dead inside and everything in society seems so irredeemably rotten that it's not worth fighting for it any long, one might think, and that wouldn't be completely wrong. It's a well-done version of that: the cast is all very good, with Bodnia carrying literally every scene of the movie in a perpetual state of blank desperation, suggesting that he isn't so much afraid of failing to meet his debts to Milo as he so certain of his failure that a washed-out blandness is the only thing keeping him sane.

The key, I think, is to bear in mind that the movie came out in 1996, not in 2011, not following God knows how many of the damn things. In 1996, the world was in the grip of a certain filmmaker called Quentin Tarantino, and a certain pair of movies called Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and in both America and Europe young male filmmakers were intoxicated by the former video store clerk's mixture of pop culture allusion, abstracted dialogue and characters, and brutal gangland violence filtered back and forth to the point where it isn't "romanticised", but certainly made "cool". Tarantino got away with it through a mixture of hubris, creativity, and an encyclopedic knowledge of genre films; most of his imitators simply made slick, painfully forgettable crime pictures.

1996 was just late enough that Winding Refn and co-writer Jens Dahl assuredly must have seen the first fruits of the post-Tarantino wave, and their Pusher is a pointed and largely successful counter to that impulse. It is the story of the kind of character found in all of those movies, with the kind of ticking-clock scenario that makes those movies nominally exciting, with a throbbing score that assures us that what we're watching is tremendously thrilling, and on the other hand it is caked in layers of grime and filth, an aesthetic so monumentally far from the snazzy flourishes of Tarantino and his ilk that it almost ceases to feel like the same art form. Only one part of the entire movie suggests artfulness at all: the non-diegetic introduction of the main characters in dramatically noirish top-lit poses facing the camera with their names superimposed. Otherwise, it's all handheld and bad lighting and swirling from point to point like Winding Refn and cinematographer Morten Søborg just pushed the "record" button and aimed the camera at the actors without bothering to rehearse blocking first. And not much in the way of elaborate violence, "cool" or otherwise: despite its pervasive sense of desperation and cruelty, there's only a little bit of action or violence to be seen in Pusherand what does happen is stomach-turning

I pray it's not parochialism on my part, a sort of "any Danish filmmaker is as good as another impulse", to see in this calculated anti-aesthetic an echo of the Dogme 95 experiment; I have little suspicion that Winding Refn obeyed any or most of the strident rules of that movement (whose first official film, The Celebration, was two years in the future) but the effect is unmistakably similar. It's a movie about the ugliness and physicality of life as it is lived (right down to the casting of actual criminals and junkies), not life as it is dreamed to be by style-besotted filmmakers. This impulse was widespread in Europe in the late 1990s; another point of comparison is the Dardenne brothers, whose major works all post-date Pusher. I have no interest in claiming that the European realists of the '90s and '00s were taking their cues from a gritty Danish crime film, box office smash or no; but certainly the fact that Winding Refn got there so early is impressive, and that he used this style to so effectively argue against the treatment of criminals and drug dealers as romantic, exciting figures (Frank is pathetic and thus earns our sympathy and even affection, but we never come close to wanting to trade places with him) that was prominent at the time is more impressive still. Despite a clutch of memorable performances, time has blunted the film's edge somewhat, but there's still something about that steely commitment to laying everything miserably bare that gives the film a sharp edge.
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Despite Pusher's massive success, Winding Refn was not apparently inclined to revisit it, nor the corroded milieu. He knocked out Bleeder, a film of little reputation, in 1999; in 2003 he found his way into some Canadian and British money to make Fear X, a murder mystery starring John Turturro that died a brutal death at the box office and threatened to shutter the filmmaker's production company. Desperate for a sure thing, Winding Refn gave into popular demand and saved his company and possibly even his career by turning his grim crime drama into a grim crime trilogy. Though the scope of the series would broaden considerably, and while I will own to having no real idea why Pusher is regarded as anything but an interesting sidebar in the grand story of 1990s crime pictures, I have no problem understanding why a cult has accrued to 2004's Pusher II, even though in the aggregate, it doesn't strike me as being quite as "successful" as its predecessor. But its flaws are more fascinating than what the original Pusher got right, and that makes all the difference.

It seems, for a little while, that the sequel will be a stylistic advance on the original: it opens with a lengthy shot of a prison inmate (Jesper Salomonsen) delivering a monologue about conquering one's emotions framed in a way that is absolutely not at all unusual or quirky or inventive, and yet as it goes on and on, one something begins to feel disorienting about the moment. The best thing I can immediately call to mind to compare it to is the endless two-shot at the heart of the 2008 Hunger, though it is not nearly so long; but in both cases, the static shot is long enough that the filmmakers almost seem to be daring us to blink or lose focus, and the intensity of the moment becomes almost nauseating.

Nothing in the film will return to that, although it's certainly not without its style; but in the main, it's quite a bit like Pusher. Frenzied handheld, shitty lighting, grotty locations, pounding techno-flavored score that threatens to knock your heartbeat out of rhythm. Yet that opening casts a trance that lingers, something the original movie never even thought about. Now, the inmate is speaking to none other than our friend Tonny, the hedonistic scumbag from the first movie, still played by Mikkelsen. It turns out to be the last day in Tonny's latest stint in prison, and he is ready to return to a life of boozing and fucking, but first he has to get set up in his father's auto shop. His father, a crime lord called the Duke (Leif Sylvester), is a powerful and imposing figure - Tonny's prison friend let us know that already - and he has very little use for his messed-up adult son, doting instead on Tonny's young half-brother.

Tonny himself, it turns out, has an infant child, born to prostitute Charlotte (Anne Sørensen), which he learns quite by accident and to his great shock, and it is this event that turns the movie and thus the trilogy on its head, though it takes a while for this to happen. In the meantime, there's quite a lot of drug-dealing business with the Duke's loyal underling Ø (Øyvind Hagen-Traberg), and the colorfully awful Kusse-Kurt (Kurt Nielsen), whose name is helpfully subtitled as "Kurt the Cunt", and wrangling with Charlotte over the behavior properly becoming a mother of a baby. It's this last detail that seems to alarm even Tonny himself as being out of character for a licentious street tough, and where the movie slowly blossoms into something much more interesting than just another story about the ghastly life of Copenhagen drug runners. Which is good, because that part of the film is not at all so good as it was before, possibly because it is redundant.

Pusher was in its way a character study, of course: Frank's unraveling is interesting primarily because of the unexpected way the film lets us into his perspective and demonstrates the humane side of the wicked drug trade. But it's got nothing on Pusher II, and the way that we get to see Tonny discover by inches that his life and the society around him is a complete disaster. On paper, it sounds unforgivably sentimental: the way he realises that he is a terrible man and that his baby is heading for the same life, the emotional scars of his pained relationship with his own father, his growing awareness that his life in prison has left him a selfish teenager in a thirtysomething body on the verge of being too old to change, even the heavy-handed symbolism of the word "Respect" tattooed across his bare skull & all the ways thatit takes on all the meanings you'd anticipate.

In practice, it's not very sentimental at all, in large part due to Mikkelsen's restrained performance, which constantly implies without ever stating the undercurrents of the character, and the rest thanks to the continued harshness of Winding Refn's spare realism, though in this case it's not half so anti-stylish as it was before. In particular, the use of lighting becomes positively ingenious, particularly during Tonny's frequent trips to a brothel drenched in so much red light that at times the film becomes virtually nothing but a sheet of red with black shapes suggesting the human form moving across it. No, it's not subtle: this is Hell. But it fits in well with the grainy, putrid look of the more typically realistic scenes of street life.

Pusher II is a good deal more nasty and violent and bitter than Pusher, but by virtue of having such a clear character arc driving it, it has a hell of a lot more soul. There are still problems all over the place: the first half of the movie, before Tonny's desire for redemption has begun to penetrate his consciousness, is an unncessarily plodding retread of material Winding Refn had already done (maybe his way of bringing us back into this world after eight years away - I cannot say), and the obviousness of the whole thing robs it of some of its impact. But it's memorable all right, and Mikkelsen anchors the film with a tremendous presence that sells even the most soap-operatic moments with a lacerating, teeth-clenched honesty.
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The third time was the charm: 2005's Pusher 3 (the shift from Roman to Arabic numerals seems oddly important, though I cannot say why) is something of a masterpiece that pushes the admittedly tiny "life and times of bedraggled men in the drug industry" subgenre to a place that it had never before gone and will likely not return. It is, like Pusher II, a character study of a man who is dimly aware that he hates his whole life and wants out of it; it is, unlike Pusher II, about a man who is so high up and so intractably buried within his criminal empire that he can't even make a good-faith effort to escape. For in this case, our "hero" is Milo the Serbian drug lord, played for the third time by Zlatko Burić, who by virtue of a cameo in Pusher II is the only actor in all three films, and if Pusher 3 had nothing else to recommend it besides demonstrating that even the seemingly untouchable kingpins of great drug cartels have their miseries and pressures from above, it would at least be something worth noting. But that's hardly all of what makes the film tick.

Winding Refn opens the film with a scene that is so bizarrely out of place, given everything we've come to expected based on the first two films, that I spent most of it looking for the hidden twist: Milo attending an Narcotic Anonymous meeting to explain to the supportive people gathered around that he's been really stressed out planning his daughter's (Marinela Dekić) 25th birthday celebration, and it's taking all of his willpower to avoid using a little chemical assistance to get through the day.

It has all the trappings of a stupidly broad joke: see, he's a recovering addict, but he's also a drug lord! Ain't it always the way, folks? In fact, the great majority of Pusher 3 acts uncommonly like a wacky comedy of errors that somebody absentmindedly forgot to put jokes in. Milo gets a shipment of ecstasy instead of a shipment of heroin, and has to find somebody who knows what to do with ecstasy. Milo tries to cook traditional food for his daughter's party, but gives all of his henchmen food poisoning. Milo wants to force his daughter's fiancé (Levino Jensen) into his sphere of influence, but his daughter starts to haggle with him over their cut. Milo loses all the ecstasy and has to play host to the leaders of a prostitution ring to make up for it. Wocka wocka!

Of course, Pusher 3 isn't meant to be a farce, at least not the kind that is funny in even the remotest degree, and that fact that so many of the incidents within it are at the level of a sub-par sitcom gives it a sharp bite of the inexplicable and absurd. The great Milo is reduced to absurdity, an impression helped considerably by Burić's clownlike burliness, yet this reduction is not ridiculous but tragic, an impression helped considerably by the haunted, empty look Burić wears in most scenes, particularly in the film's best moment, where he learns that the young woman being auctioned off in his kitchen is a person with life and a history all her own, and the actor's face tells us without having to tell us that he wants to be a better father to this strung-out innocent than to his own shitty, overprivileged offspring (it is horrible to contemplate that such a marvelous actor as Burić received what is unquestionably his most prominent role to date as the cartoon Russian mobster in 2012).

Though Pusher 3 shares with its forebears a shaky, hyper-realist aesthetic high on location grime and low on good lighting and polish, it's striking how dissimilar it is from Pusher II, given that the two films were presumably made all in a rush. Pusher II was, relatively, full of poetic abstraction and an attempt to externalise the protagonist's inner torments; Pusher 3 is perhaps the most staid of the three films, relying to a great extent on the repetition of frames, locations, and narrative beats. Except in a few key moments, it's not at all as hectic as the others, and while it is stuck in the same filthy world, it's not at all so fetid. The privileges of being the boss, maybe. Milo is not on the streets, and except for the third act, he never really has to muck about in the sordidness that was Frank's entire world in Pusher. Even then, the sucker punch of the movie isn't the big gory showpiece presented with such icy detachment as to be maybe the most grotesque scene in a violent franchise, but the lingering final shot, in which most of the frame is taken up the sky. Comparatively, Pusher 3 is an elegy, and while in the grand scheme of cinema, it's still a nasty movie shot with minimal artistic embellishment in Copenhagen's disgusting underbelly, next to the other Pusher movies, parts of it are almost stately and abstract. This makes it at least a little bit easier to take, but it also makes the brutality on display more existential and therefore universal than it was in Pusher, where the stakes never aim to be more than one man's life. The whole series is about rotten men in rotten circumstances, but it's only in the best moments of the third entry that the theme expands to be about the whole rotten world. It's harsh and cruel and I would not fight anyone who called it unacceptable nihilistic, but you can't argue with powerful filmmaking, and that is undoubtedly what's on display here.