After the commercial failure of his American art film thriller Fear X, Danish auteur filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn returned back to his Copenhagen home in 2004 a defeated man. Living off his girlfriend’s maternal state benefits, and addicted to painkiller lozenges, he plots a scheme to get himself out of the red and back on track: returning to the guns, drugs and mean streets of Vesterbro for two sequels to his hit movie Pusher -the highest grossing Danish debut of all time. It’s a punt, but one that the penniless artist is willing to make. Suffice to say, we all know how well the pursuit went.
Rather than focus on the aftermath successes, and hanging out with Ryan Gosling, documentary director Phie Ambo focuses on the daily activities of the man behind the camera. We see Refn roam around the city streets – many of which we recognise from his movies – pleading to the bank for another loan, meeting with potential financiers at the Danish Film Institute, trying to win the approval of his doting production team, and arguing with his pragmatic girlfriend Liv Corfixen. In any other case, the repetitive pursuit for happiness may risk being mundane, but Ambo’s ubiquitous fly-on-the-wall shooting provides a notable rhetoric on the desperation, woes and passion that an artist must have to pursue their vision.
If you’re a fan of the Pusher trilogy (and why wouldn’t you be?) Gambler may dampen your opinion on the movies’ artistic intent. Right from the start, Refn makes it clear that his return to a story he thought he had finished eight years ago is purely a financial concern. Rather than invoke disconcertion, it warrants a great deal of respect for Refn; a hardworking man trying to provide for his family. So hardworking that he manages to rustle up Pusher II‘s script over a four day period, conduct a profane-filled read-through with his girl friends the following day, and then just make one or two tweaks before the shoot.
Aside from the portrait of Refn, Ambo also manages to depict the sequel’s most exceptional actor Kurt Nielsen, aka Kurt the Kunt. Growing up on the wrong sides of track, the slacker turned actor is worried that his performance as a drug pushing pimp in the film will shatter his already bruised public image. In many ways, this exploitative point is underdeveloped, but it does provide some context to the societal impact of Refn’s movies, and Copenhagen culture more generally.
Just short of 80 minutes, filmed on one budget digicam, and only a few minutes of Mads Mikkelsen screen time, Gambler works best as a companion piece to Refn’s career. Following the overwhelming success of Drive, and the new Tokyo-set Only God Forgives being released early next year, this breezy documentary is an insightful and inspirational look at an important filmmaker’s legacy in-the-making.