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Frank (Kim Bodnia), the protagonist of Nicolas Winding Refn's debut feature Pusher, was a likable everyman who also happened to be a drug dealer in a lot of trouble. In that film, Frank's associate and sometime-friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen, soon to be seen as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale) seemed to be a bird of a different feather: His shaved head (complete with "RESPECT" tattooed across its back), lithe body and careless attitude suggested a man who wanted to be seen as a tough customer -- someone to be feared. In reality, though, Tonny was more interested in drinking with his friends and talking about sex than actually taking part in the violent, dangerous life that surrounded him. Despite his efforts to the contrary, he looked more like a naïve kid out for adventure than he did a hardened criminal.
In Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands, Tonny is forced to the foreground, and proves himself to be both more and less than he seemed. In the years between the two films, Tonny has grown from a scrawny, energetic kid into a strangely vacant adult, completely lost within his own life. The movie opens with him on the receiving end of a jailhouse monologue about how fear is the only thing that separates those who run the world from the sorry masses; once fear is conquered, one can do anything. Tonny listens blankly, the relevance of the story lost on him. Instead of comprehending what he hears, he simply stares until the speaker mentions the money Tonny owes him. Because the man knows and respects Tonny's father -- known to everyone as the Duke -- he's willing to work with Tonny to pay back the debt. Otherwise, he would not be so kind. The problem is solved when Tonny, clearly at his debtor's bidding, starts a prison-yard fight that results in him being outnumbered and badly beaten. Though Tonny's initial attack was brave, his wild flight afterwards was not; his fear remains firmly in control.
Upon his release from prison, Tonny immediately goes to his father's auto shop in search of a job. For a few moments, he is his old self: Cocky, lively and talking about blow jobs with anyone who will listen. The moment he actually sees The Duke (Leif Sylvester), though, the emptiness returns. Tonny is clearly terrified of his father, and just as obviously in need of his respect. It's abundantly clear that the Duke's business is not a legal one, but he nevertheless considers his junkie son a failure because he is unable to hold his own in the criminal world. Tonny, though off heroin (his father checks for track marks), is frighteningly simple-minded, disastrously addicted to cocaine and incapable of solving any problems on his own. When the Duke grudgingly agrees to hire his son, he does so against his better judgement, and without much hope of success.
That Tonny's helplessness is childlike is no accident -- the ideas of family and fatherhood run throughout Pusher II, giving the film an unexpected emotional power. The Duke, who has essentially given Tonny up for lost, dotes on Valdemar (Luis Werner Grau), his young son born to a stripper-mother who now wants custody of the boy. Valdemar is about seven-years-old, but is treated like a man by his father. Though he always make sure someone is looking out for the boy, The Duke allows Valdemar to spend days with him in the shop, listening to the men discuss sex, drugs and crime in excruciating detail. The Duke sees himself as a good role model for the boy, who takes it all in without apparent fear or confusion -- he absorbs every single word, unblinking and unflinching.
When Tonny finds out that he, too, has a son -- unnamed, born while he was in prison -- he find himself gripped by an aimless paternal impulse. Unable to articulate his feelings or desires, even the simple Tonny nevertheless senses that this infant represents some sort of opportunity. The boy's mother is as enslaved by cocaine as his father, however, and neither of them ever sees at the boy with clear eyes. Most of the time, he's either a terrible burden -- "Hold him, I need to smoke." -- or a silent bundle of innocent perfection. Neither of the boy's parents knows the first thing about parenting, and a large degree of the dread that hangs over Pusher II stems from simply seeing the quiet child in shot after seedy shot, surrounded by spaced-out junkies and lines of cocaine.
Pusher II is less of a sequel to Pusher than it is a companion piece, and Refn returns to the familiar world with the same grace and skill that defined his first film. His style remains the same, driven by a patient hand-held camera and an unwillingness to glamorize anything in his story. The director's greatest strength is his ability to infuse his films with a pulsating tension, even without the presence of a specific threat, or even the promise of violence. In Refn's hands a simple nightclub is a minefield of unspecified emotional and physical danger; he signal threats and states of mind through quiet changes in lighting and camera angles.
The world of the Pusher films is the complete opposite of that popularized by Quentin Tarantino in his adrenaline-laced films of the 1990s, in which crime and violence are perpetrated by clever, sadistic creatures who are never without a clever quip. Refn's characters, on the other hand, are pathetic men and women who barely survive from day to day. Half of them are so drug addicted that they don't even notice the passage of time, and the rest are in such debt that they don't dare look to the future, because they know they will never get there. In Pusher, there was hope in Frank.: He had his wits about him, and was motivated, first to solve his problems and then, briefly, to fall in love, and maybe even escape. By the time Pusher II takes place, however, things have taken a turn for the worse: There is no one around Tonny who has the strength to hope, and no one with enough chance at a future to even bother with love. There are children, yes, as well as pornography, and sex for sale, but none of those things involve any emotion -- everywhere are signs of people just going through the motions, moving through their days without any actual human contact.
As Tonny, Mads Mikkelsen turns in a performance very different from Kim Bodina's in Pusher, but one that is equally impressive. Despite the fact that Bodina's Frank was physically very still, there was life to him -- a sense of humor, and an irrepressible humanity that never left, even in the darkest moments. Tonny has none of that. He's achingly alone, and completely adrift in the world. Unable to start anything on his own, he's left to orbit the lives of others, waiting for them to throw him a lifeline in the form of a job, question or even an insult. Though those moments give him the illusion of human connections, Tonny remains as blank and distant as always, hopelessly agreeing to whatever is asked, and inevitably failing to come through. The saddest thing about Pusher II, ultimately, is that when the Duke calls his son a failure and a waste of space, he's right. And you can see in Mikkelsen's frightened eyes that, even under the wet blanket of cocaine, Tonny knows it.
Magnolia Films is releasing the Pusher Trilogy in a few theaters around the country over the coming weeks, starting in New York's Village Cinema on Friday. In these limited screenings, the films will be shown back-to-back, allowing American viewers to see them in a single sitting for the first time. As only the first in the series is available on DVD in the US, anyone living near one of the theaters would be wise to take advantage of this opportunity. Our review of Pusher was published yesterday, and Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death is coming tomorrow.