Masculinity crisis and daddy issues: The parallels between Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher-II and Taxi Driver

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(The following article is free of spoilers.)

What is Pusher-II about?

Before wowing both U.S critics and audiences with his ultra-cool, hyper-violent L.A-set crime thriller Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn made his mark in his native Denmark with his brutal, raw and uncompromisingly bold Pusher Trilogy, which centered around petty hoodlums and drug lords in the Copenhagen underworld. All three films in the trilogy are characterized by their cinéma vérité style (a style that was recently seen in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Black Swan) and Refn even employed non-professional actors (some of them criminals) to achieve the ultra-realistic look that he was aiming for. This is markedly different from the glossy and heavily stylized look he chose for Drive and Only God Forgives. The 80s-style synth-pop background score is still there though. I consider this trilogy to be one of the best ever made and Pusher-II is my personal favorite from it. I’ve learned that most people that have seen Drive have never even heard of this trilogy, except for those who are hardcore fans of Refn.

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The protagonist of Pusher-II is Tonny (played by Mads Mikkelsen), a reckless, terribly insecure low-level hoodlum who first made an appearance in Pusher as the friend of Frank, the protagonist of that film. After a falling out that leads to a violent confrontation between him and Frank in the second half of that film, Tonny was nowhere to be seen. However, in Pusher-II, the entire focus is on Tonny’s life. We already get a small sense of what kind of man Tonny is from the first film but the second film expands on that and while the first film dealt with one man’s (Frank) desperate attempts to stay away from trouble, the second and third films are pure character studies. In the opening scene, Tonny is being advised by his prison cellmate on the importance of conquering fear and also being tough and ruthless. He thinks Tonny lacks these qualities. Tonny is soon released from prison and proceeds to visit his father, a well-known and well-feared gangster named The Duke. He doesn’t seem very pleased to see him and doesn’t even give him a handshake.

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His father runs the illegal business of stealing cars and shipping them off. Tonny, in the hope of making an earning and pay off his debts, approaches him for a job. Too eager to impress his dad, he steals a Ferrari and drives it to his father’s garage. Unfortunately, this rash decision is met with an intense disapproval from him as the car has a tracking chip. His father orders him to return the car back to where he got it from without delay and is told that he is a fuck-up. He comes to learn that he has a step-brother who is given the love and attention that Tonny wasn’t given. Things get further complicated when he finds out that he had fathered a child with a promiscuous woman who also happens to be a coke addict. Tonny repeatedly goes through several humiliating circumstances over the course of the film and everything leads to a shocking yet redemptive final act that reaches Shakespearean proportions. (Needless to say, Mads Mikkelsen unleashes his inner Hannibal in this scene.)

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The parallels with Taxi Driver:

After watching Pusher-II for the second time, I couldn’t help noticing some of the striking parallels it has with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Both films are about young men undergoing a masculinity crisis and struggling to belong. Both men continually deal with rejection from all sides and feel humiliated on more than one occasion and both men are desperately seeking for validation in every corner (Tonny even has a tattoo that says “RESPECT” on the back of his head). Pusher-II is primarily about daddy issues and you can tell that Tonny grew up without any sort of encouragement from his father. I think this is a film that people who have had similar experiences in their childhood (and adulthood) would find very easy to relate to. Tonny, just like Travis Bickle, is obsessed with porn and is seen trying to derive some kind of satisfaction from them. Like I mentioned above, Tonny is put through several humiliating situations in Pusher-II and one of them involves a failed sexual encounter with two prostitutes.

It’s a scene where, soon after being released from prison, Tonny yearns for a blowjob and later finds himself unable to get an erection when he is with these two prostitutes. Seeing him struggle, they start to ridicule his flaccid manhood. In Taxi Driver, Travis is humiliated when he takes Betsy to a movie theater and she walks out on him when she finds out that he has brought her to an adult movie. Her subsequent attempts to ignore him further dent his psyche (and possibly his sexuality). In Pusher-II, Tonny decides to finally take control of his life by rescuing his child from the seedy and vile world he is living in and hopes to become a responsible father, unlike his own. Now, Tonny does this despite knowing that he is a major screw-up. In Taxi Driver, the “baby” is Iris and Travis tries to rescue her (perhaps due to some unresolved daddy issues just like Tonny) and he too carries out a shocking yet redemptive violent act in the end. Apparently, Refn drew from his own insecurities while writing the film.

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