The film is set in the criminal underground of Copenhagen, Denmark, and tells the story of the drug dealer Frank (Kim Bodnia) who, after losing a large amount of money in a drug deal gone wrong, falls into desperation as he only has a few days to raise the money he owes.
The film begins in Copenhagen with a low-level drug dealer Frank (Kim Bodnia) going to a heroin deal with his sidekick Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen). The pair only manage to sell some of their product, and then waste time about town. Frank then visits his friend Vic (Laura Drasbæk), a prostitute who holds some of Frank's stash for a fee. Vic wants to have a serious relationship with Frank, but Frank prefers to keep it purely casual.
Frank is visited by a former cell mate, a Swede named Hasse (Peter Andersson), and the pair set up a large drug deal. Frank visits his supplier, the Serbian local drug lord Milo (Zlatko Burić), to get the heroin. Already owing Milo some money, Frank cannot cover the cost of the heroin, but Milo allows him to take the drugs provided that he immediately returns with the money.
The deal goes bad, however, when police arrive. In the process of evading the police, Frank dumps the heroin in a lake. At the station, police officers convince Frank that Tonny has delivered a confession that implicates Frank, but he still does not admit to anything. When Frank is released after 24 hours he returns to Milo to explain how he lost the money and the drugs. Milo does not believe Frank's story and demands that he pay back even more than he already owes. Frank then immediately seeks Tonny out and savagely beats him with a baseball bat.
Milo's cynical henchman Radovan (Slavko Labović) accompanies Frank to help him collect on some of his own debts to use toward his debt with Milo. The pair have a friendly conversation and Radovan shares his secret desire to open a restaurant. Radovan tries to force an addict customer of Frank's to rob a bank to cover his debt, but the addict commits suicide in front of them. As Frank makes other disastrous attempts to earn money, Vic becomes increasingly insistent that they behave as a couple. He takes her to several clubs and makes plans to drive her to the veterinarian to see her sick dog.
Frank finally makes a deal, but his drug mule betrays him and switches the heroin for baking soda. Radovan drops his friendly demeanour and begins threatening Frank with serious injury should he fail to pay up soon. Frank goes on a desperate rampage, stealing some money and drugs from the gym of some drug-dealing body builders, but he is soon picked up by Radovan and tortured. Frank manages to escape and makes plans to flee with Vic to Spain. After successfully making his final deal in Copenhagen, Frank receives a call from Milo, who promises to accept a token payment to put an end to their feud. When Frank bluntly informs Vic that their plans to flee are cancelled, she steals his stash of money and runs off.
The film ends with Frank grimly catching his breath as his enemies throughout the city prepare to dispose of him.Kim Bodnia as Frank, a low-level drug-dealer
Zlatko Burić as Milo, a powerful Serb drug lord, with a fondness for baking
Laura Drasbæk as Vic, a high-class prostitute and Frank's girlfriend
Slavko Labović as Radovan, Milo's enforcer and aspiring restaurateur
Mads Mikkelsen as Tonny, Frank's cheerful but manic partner
Vanja Bajičić as Branko, Radovan's cousin and Milo's thug
Peter Andersson as Hasse, a Swedish drug-dealer
Lisbeth Rasmussen as Rita, Frank's untrustworthy drug mule
Levino Jensen as Mike, a bodybuilding drug-dealer
Thomas Bo Larsen as a drug addict who owes Frank money
Lars Bom as one of the officers who interrogates Frank
Nicolas Winding Refn as Brian, a young man who buys drugs from Frank and Tonny
The movie began as a five-minute "short" that Winding Refn had made as an application to a Danish film school. Refn turned down the offer he subsequently received, instead deciding to transform Pusher into a feature-length independent film utilizing a nominal amount of funding that he had managed to acquire.
Refn partnered with film student Jens Dahl to write the film's screenplay. His goal was to tell the story of a man under pressure, without glamorizing the lifestyle of a drug dealer. Refn organized the plot's events according to the days of the week in his notes and this was subsequently established in the final product. Refn's major inspirations for the film were The Battle of Algiers, Cannibal Holocaust, The French Connection, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Mean Streets.
During rehearsal, Winding Refn became dissatisfied with the actor he had cast as Frank, thinking him too placid and boring. Two weeks before shooting was to begin, Winding Refn fired the actor without a replacement in line. Winding Refn approached Kim Bodnia, who was an established actor at the time, and Bodnia accepted. Though the other primary roles were mostly filled with experienced actors, many of the minor roles were filled by Winding Refn's friends or people accustomed to the street life.
Bodnia brought a greater degree of intensity and aggressiveness to the part that some actors were not prepared for. Winding Refn claimed that the surprised reactions of some actors are genuine, as they had not rehearsed with Bodnia beforehand and were expecting the previous actor's more sedate performances.
Slavko Labović, who played the Serbian thug Radovan, was a friend of Željko Ražnatović. He provided a poster of Ražnatović to use as a prop in Milo's headquarters. The actor playing Milo, Zlatko Burić, is actually a Croat. Winding Refn became concerned when violence flared between Serbs and Croats during filming, but the events did not cause problems on set.
The film was shot using Danish union rules, which allowed no more than 8 hours of filming per day, and no filming on weekends. The rules, combined with the high cost of filming permits, caused time and budget constraints. The film was shot entirely using hand-held cameras. Winding Refn wanted to capture a realistic, documentary feel to the film. This caused problems with the time constraints of the shooting schedule and Winding Refn's desire to keep the film shadowy. Actors are often backlit or difficult to see due to insufficient lighting.
The film was shot almost completely in chronological order. Winding Refn later admitted that shooting scenes out of order was confusing to him. However, some scenes were reshot or added later. The scene in which Frank shoots at Milo's thugs was originally filmed without special effects, but Winding Refn was dissatisfied with the results and reshot the scene using squibs. The scene with the junkie was shot after shooting had completed to replace a previous scene that Refn discarded because it dealt with an outdated vision of Frank's character.
The film was considered the first Danish-language gangster film and became a break-through success for Winding Refn and several of the lead actors. Winding Refn claimed that the film inspired cults of highly dedicated fans and influenced Danish fashion to emulate certain costumes worn by the characters. Kim Bodnia launched a very successful career as a leading man in Danish cinema largely due to the success of the movie. Zlatko Burić was given a Bodil Award in 1997 for his performance as Milo.
The film holds a score of 81% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes with the average score of 6.9/10. The review aggravator site Metacritic has given the movie an average score of 72 out of 100, which means "Generally favorable reviews".
Two sequels followed, focusing on different characters from the same "underworld" milieu of Copenhagen.
Pusher II follows Frank's former partner, Tonny. Tonny struggles with his relationship with his father following his release from prison; Tonny concurrently negotiates the prospect of becoming a father himself and the discovery that his mother had died while he was incarcerated.
Pusher 3 follows drug lord, Milo. Milo is followed through the course of a hectic day, as he struggles with his attempt at sobriety, a series of problematic criminal deals, and his daughter's birthday celebration for which he is the chef.