Pushing the boundaries of loserdom
Pusher opts for everyday reality over grand cinema in this cautionary tale of drugs
Just because most of the people in this movie are entirely loathsome doesn’t mean you have to hate Luis Prieto’s Pusher.
But it will elicit a deep sense of revulsion all the same — whether you choose to love this movie, or reject it on principle.
A violent, sex-laden and frequently comedy-prone trip down the toilet of a failed life, the movie begs you to judge early, and judge often.
When your central character is a workaday drug dealer with a weedy little sidekick, it’s hard not to feel the steel of a looming moral blade because once we spend enough time with Frank (Richard Coyle), we begin to see he’s probably beyond redemption.
He doesn’t seem that bad at the beginning, but that’s the warped upside of this upside-down cautionary tale: It understands the most dangerous members of society are often the ones who look completely benign.
Everything about Frank screams regular fella, and maybe that’s one of the underlying psychological factors at play: He dreams of being more than the average Joe he really is, so he turns to the over-romanticized world of drugs and thugs looking for a new identity that overcomes his beige soul.
It’s here, in the grotty crevices of London’s underworld, that we first meet Frank and his rat-like friend Tony (Bronson Webb) as they plan a deal that could set them up for life. We never get the particulars. The whole scheme comes to us through personal encounters with the dirty rainbow of soiled souls, from the sleazy mule who takes Frank’s cash to the avuncular Balkan who will break his legs.
Because movie formula informs most of these sequences, we not only arrive at the underlying scheme relatively early, we’re also under the impression Frank will emerge as some kind of hero by the final frame.
After all, he seems like a nice guy. Even if his friend Tony uses the most demeaning, sexist and vulgar language, Frank seems good to women. He’s almost the guy next door — until his planned departure for Easy Street is delayed at the terminal.
When his mule goes missing with the money and a new acquaintance meets with a bad end, Frank soon realizes he has no real friends. None. And the one pal who probably would have stood by him, he beats with a baseball bat.
The worse things get for Frank, the better things get for the movie.
In fact, the more Frank emerges as a pathetic creep, the more fun it is to watch him squirm. Not only is it entertaining from a pure performance point of view — thanks in large part to the devastatingly deadpan Slavs who plays the heavies, it’s soul-cleansing from a moral point of view.
All that time we were forced to watch Frank exploit everyone around him took its toll on our empathy as well as patience for the movie itself. No one wants to watch a flaky creep get rich without consequence: It’s too much like reality.
Yet, when Frank’s arrogance begins to catch up with him, the karmic payoff results in a slow-motion fall deserving of a Peckinpah montage — that never comes.
Director Prieto wasn’t going for the grand cinematic moment. Instead, he’s looking for the kitchensink reality of being a cocky person of mediocre intelligence who believes he’s a step ahead of the game.
Watching weak losers fail offers its own rewards, but where this movie raises itself above the generic competition is its clever — but unspoken — conceit that Frank could be a hero if he plays his cards right.
Let’s face it: He has nice clothes and a decent look. Why couldn’t he be just like George or Brad in Ocean’s Eleven? Every dime store crook looks in the mirror and sees a little Clooney gazing back and Frank is no different.
Prieto lulls us into liking him, then slowly but surely turns the screws until we can see Frank for what he truly is: a user who would say anything to anyone to help himself, including the ones he professes to love.
By the time the movie is over, we may feel a little dirty for the experience, but any sense of moral doubt has been answered by the director’s unflinching hand of judgment and Frank’s complete failure as a decent human being.