Pusher – A Look at The Trilogy That Helped Shape Danish Cinema

by Rubén Palma
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Released in 1996, Danish crime drama Pusher, tells the story of Frank, a drug dealer portrayed by Kim Bodnia, who gets caught up in a week-long string of dangerous and violent situations. Set in the criminal underworld of Copenhagen, the film chronicles Frank’s attempts to sell a significant amount of drugs to a wealthy client. However, when the deal goes wrong, Frank has to find the money to pay back his supplier, Milo, portrayed by Zlatko Buric, to avoid Milo’s wrath.

As Frank becomes increasingly desperate to come up with the money, he is drawn into a world of treachery, deceit, and brutality. In his quest, he has confrontations with various criminals and law enforcement officers, which puts his relationship with his girlfriend and best friend to the test.

Pusher, also marked Mads Mikkelsen’s first significant role in a feature film, although it was a minor role, as Frank’s friend, Tonny, a small-time criminal, drug dealer. Despite being loyal to Frank, Tonny often makes mistakes that cause trouble for both himself and Frank. Mikkelsen’s performance in Pusher helped launch his career as an actor, and he was also the lead character in Pusher II.

Back in the 90s, when Pusher was released, criminality and violence, was not a subject that had been explored in Danish cinema, in such a raw and unflinching way before. With other noteworthy Danish movies in the 90s, such as: “Mifunes Sidste Sang“, “Den Eneste Ene“, “Nattevagten“, “Idioterne“, “Festen“, and “Breaking the Waves“. Pusher’s focus on drugs, violence, and desperation, was something new and refreshing, that separated the movie from the more intellectual and philosophical themes that were common in Danish cinema at the time.

Since its release, critics and audiences alike, have praised the cinematography in the trilogy, for its ability to authentically depict the criminal underworld in Copenhagen. For the first time in Danish cinema history, a lot of the smaller roles in the films, were recruited from the streets of Copenhagen, and played by non-professional actors, with real connections to the criminal underworld. These actors added to the film’s sense of realism and authenticity, adding their own street-lingo, and language, that is used on the streets of Copenhagen.

Refn used close-ups to highlight the emotions of the characters, and the editing was designed to create a sense of unease, with sudden cuts and jump-cuts, adding to the chaotic and unpredictable atmosphere.

The use of long takes and static shots, creates tension and realism, while handheld camera work and natural lighting, further enhances the movie’s gritty and raw tone – adding to the authentic look, that contributes to the tense and unpredictable tone.

Director, Nicolas Winding Refn, has stated that the inspiration for the film came from his own experiences, living in Copenhagen in the 1990s. Refn was fascinated by the city’s criminal underworld and the people who was a part of it, and he wanted to make a film that would capture the gritty reality of their lives.

In interviews, Refn has also discussed his desire to make a film, that was different from the typical Danish social realist dramas of the time. He wanted to create a movie that was more visceral and cinematic, with a heightened sense of style and energy. Additionally, Refn has cited his love of American crime films as an influence on Pusher. He wanted to create a Danish version of a classic gangster movie, but with a more realistic and grounded approach.

8 years later, Pusher II was released in 2004, followed by Pusher III, in 2005, completing the trilogy. Like the first film, both sequels were directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, and starred Zlatko Buric and Mads Mikkelsen, after Kim Bodnia made his exit.

After having a minor role in Pusher, Mads Mikkelsen’s character Tonny, stars as the protagonist in Pusher II, who’s life we follow in the aftermath of Frank’s exit. In the movie we see how Tonny struggles to reconnect with his gangster father, prove his worth as a criminal, and overcome his addiction to drugs – and while trying to navigate his complex relationships with his ex-girlfriend and newborn son, he finds himself drawn deeper into a world of violence and betrayal.

In the final installment of the trilogy, Pusher III, is centered around Zlatco Buric’s, narco-boss character, Milo, who is being threatened by the younger generation of criminals – and therefore tries to leave criminal world behind, and retire in peace – coming full circle.

Like the first Pusher movie, from 1996, the two other films in the trilogy, is filmed in a realistic and naturalistic style. Both films feature hand-held camera work, natural lighting, and a muted color palette that conveys the dark and gritty look of the settings. Like the previous movies, Refn’s uses long takes and static shots to create tension and realism, and he uses close-ups to highlight the emotions of the characters.

The success of the Pusher Trilogy helped establish Nicolas Winding Refn as a prominent filmmaker, not only in Denmark, but internationally as well. His distinctive visual style and storytelling approach influenced a new generation of Danish directors, inspiring them to explore unconventional narratives and push boundaries in their work.

Moreover, the Pusher Trilogy showcased Danish cinema’s ability to produce high-quality crime dramas with international appeal. Since its release, the trilogy has gained a cult following beyond Denmark’s borders, contributing to the growing reputation of Danish cinema on the global stage.

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