Pusher II - With Blood on My Hands

dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
[img_assist|nid=952|title=We all have blood on our hands|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=410]
The second part of the Danish Pusher trilogy continues the slide down the human evolutionary scale by showing the mundane lives of Danish petty criminals as the shit-soaked nightmares that they might truly be.

Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) returns as the main character in this one, previously in a supporting role in the first flick. He’s fresh out of jail and dumb as always. A skinhead by preference, he has the word ‘respect’ tattooed across the back of his head, yet, amazingly enough, this inspires little respect in the people who see the tattoo.

You see, Tonny is pretty dumb. He’s dumb even for a petty thug. But he is not as unrepentantly evil as some of the people around him, and nowhere near as vile as his former friend Frankie who the first Pusher flick focussed on. In fact, many of Tonny’s problems may date back to a horrific beating he survived at Frankie’s hands which has left his memory scattered.

He could just be simple. He doesn’t have the mental wattage to think through any of the stuff he does, and he lacks the viciousness and ambition of his criminal compadres. Also, he’s grown in up the shadow of his crime boss father, the Duke (Leif Sylvester), who loathes him and wants nothing to do with him.

Tonny desperately tries to earn his father’s respect in various ways, and continually comes up short, and not from lack of trying. Reluctant to have anything to do with him, the Duke still gives him a chance to work for him, but he never passes up an opportunity to humiliate. At a wedding for one of his henchmen, the Duke takes time out during a speech to tell everyone how much he loves the guy getting married, and how he thinks of him as his son, and how much of a fuckup his own son Tonny is.

It can’t be good for your self-esteem to hear that kind of shit all the time. Tonny is also out of his mind on drugs most of the time, and / or drunk, so his responses to stressful situations leave something to be desired. He really needs to work on his conflict resolution skills.

With a film called Pusher, you’d expect there to be some drug deals gone wrong, and of course some drug deals go wrong. Drug deals never go right in these films, or in any films where drugs are involved. It’s a bit of a conundrum. In essence, for these people to have survived as long as they have, you’d have to presume that the drug deals they got involved in prior to the present all mostly worked out okay. It’s just that today is a different story.

Anyway, Tonny gets into progressively more trouble with more people, including owing money to his arsehole kingpin father. But it is of more immediate concern that a hag from his past presents him with an added onion in the ointment: apparently, prior to his last stint in the big house, he managed to knock her up and good, and there’s a baby she wants child support for. Of course, every scene in which she appears has her snorting line after line of coke (I presume) in between insulting Tonny ceaselessly.

The only character in the flick who doesn’t heap scorn on Tonny is the baby, so it’s unsurprising that he forms some kind of attachment to the child. Confronted with the awful nature of his own father, perhaps he hopes to prevent his own son from turning out the same way.

It’s due to the dark tone and sardonic nature of the mean streets of Copenhagen as depicted here that it is more than likely that the kid isn’t even Tonny’s, but it’s not like it matters. Although the two films have nothing else to do with each other, there’s an interesting parallel with a similar relationship a crim has with a baby in the South African film Tsotsi. These aren’t stories about gruff misanthropes who learn to love again and repent their wicked ways because of the love of a cute baby. They are stories about hardened crims who see themselves in these babies, and who feel a profound wish to undo what life has down to them by trying to look after these babies properly. And invariably failing, but that’s by the by.

A scene towards the end makes the idea even more explicit when Tonny holds up the baby, and the camera shoots them from behind, making them look like different sized versions of each other. Except for the stupid ‘respect’ tattoo, of course.

This is not a story about redemption, or even about taking on adult responsibility and making hard choices to do what’s right in terms of a child’s well-being. Tonny is as much of a drug-addled fuckwit as anyone else around the child, and as poorly suited to looking after the baby as is the baby’s drug-addled prostitute mother. The only difference is that he doesn’t see the baby (yet) as an inconvenient burden, and because he sees himself in the baby and his own chance at rewriting his own past through bringing up the kid, he actively wants to look after him.

But I’ve got no hope that this is actually what will transpire. His model for fatherhood, in the form of the Duke, is so utterly fucked up that you figure little Tonny will turn out exactly like big Tonny, if not worse.

Still, for the second in such a bleak set of grungy, raw films, Pusher II manages to be less of a relentless trawl through the desperate, ugly streets of Copenhagen’s underbelly than the other two. The main reason is that for all his faults, Tonny isn’t a complete sociopath. It’s not so much that there is more hope for him than the main protagonists of Pusher and Pusher III, it’s just that we don’t meet his adventures with the same level of blankness as in the other cases. After all, in these films you feel like most of the characters are a hair’s breadth away from either feeding someone into a meat grinder, or are about to be fed into one. There’s little relating to them or identifying with them, unless you’re a sub-level crim from the land of cheese danishes, Princess Mary of Tasmania and no clothes emperor mermaids. Surrounded by so many horrible people, Tonny becomes almost less repugnant because of it, and almost likable. I did say almost. It’s hard to like a character who has a scene as ugly as the one at the brothel.

It also, very differently from the other flicks, makes the argument that nurture or the lack thereof is the determinant even in these circumstances rather than nature, and that a father’s actions can dictate the path of their children’s lives. That makes it either ‘sins of the father’ or Oedipus Rex, or ‘Wait til Your Father Gets Home’, take your pick. For a film that is ostensibly about the nasty life of crime that doesn’t pay, it’s something thematically deeper than you have any right to expect.

Mads Mikkelsen’s performance is, I guess, pretty strong. The character is so inarticulate and lacking in brightness that much of Tonny’s inner turmoil has to be put across with facial expressions and body language, except when he’s trying to throttle the life out of someone. It’s an effective and interesting performance that brings a hideous character to life and makes them seem more real than just having someone slumming and dressing down for a role.

The soundtrack, camera work and budget all work together to make you feel like you’re out of your mind on stimulants and booze, staggering around the same streets and living the same desperate life. It’s ugly, but effective. It denudes any of these elements from having any sort of glamourisation that would cheapen the credibility of it. This is no Trainspotting clone, and in fact these films make Trainspotting look like a slightly raunchy episode of Sesame Street.

This is a strong film in a reasonably interesting trilogy of Danish films. I recommend it to those who can happily sit through very ugly cinema, who delight in the repugnant and who don’t look away in the face of the worst aspects of human life. Which isn’t that many people.

7 times you could never have expected there to be a happy ending to flicks like these out of 10

“They tell me I don’t remember things that well.”
- Who told you?”
“I can’t remember.” – Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands