Being the second part of a proposed trilogy that began in 1996 with the release of Pusher, Bleeder further examines Danish director Nicolas Wending Refn's interest in examining criminality within a disadvantaged area of Copenhagen. Where Refn's earlier film was influenced by Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and included a conversation between two petty criminals over renting a video or going to the cinema, Refn rejected the use of dialogue and characters that he felt were driven out of a need to show one's knowledge of pop culture to reveal instead the desperation felt by small men driven to take increasingly greater risks, not in the hope of making it big but simply to stay alive.
Bleeder sees Leo (Kim Bodnia) drift ever further out of society following the news that his girlfriend, Louise (Rikke Louise Andersson), is expecting their first child, something she is rather more enthusiastic about that he. Their friends include Lenny (Mads Mikkelsen), who works at a video store, and Louise's brother Louis (Levino Jensen), a small-time gangster. Through Lenny's job, the friends meet to watch violent horror films and pornography, freely and knowledgeably discussing films and filmmakers, as evidenced early in the film as Lenny walks a customer through his store.
Although Leo and Louis use these nights out with Lenny as a reason to leave their normal lives behind - notably for Leo to get away from Louise and for Louis to clear his head - Lenny is desperately trying to break away and to meet someone with whom he can love in love. When he sees the beautiful Lea (Liv Corfixen) working in a coffee shop near to his work, he becomes determined to meet her but the increasingly complex relationships between his friends threaten to destroy all of them.
Truthfully, Bleeder is a straightforward enough story, opening in rousing fashion with four of the main characters strolling through downtown Copenhagen, individually scored with rock for the boys and tender pop for the girls. Even in this initial scene, with each character having no more than a minute or two onscreen, Refn develops four strong leads with only the use of music and the mannerisms of each actor to highlight the drama that is about to unfold, most evident in that between Leo and Louise - he looks defeated and resigned to some event we are as yet unaware of, whereas she is happy and upbeat. When Leo meets Lenny at his video shop and announces that Louise is pregnant - from her appearance it is obvious she is not yet twelve weeks gone - it is clear from the opening segment that where she longs for motherhood, he is unenthusiastic; in fact, he is almost resentful.
This early scene between Leo and Lenny is almost a diversion from the three male-female relationships that provide the foundations on which all other action is based. In opening with Leo and Louise, Refn presents the latter using her unexpected pregnancy as a means to reconnect with her partner, almost to fall in love once again, but he resents bringing a child into a world he has largely given up on. As Leo's frustration with his situation grows, he reaches a point where his only means of expression is to strike out at Louise and when this eventually happens, it is a genuinely violent and shocking moment. This event has the effect of bringing Louis, who is a dislikable character guilty of casual racism, further into the group to take greater care of his sister, both by attempting to strengthen his familial bond with Louise and by punishing Leo in a sequence that is remarkable for its cold-blooded conclusion. That Leo effectivly decided his fate by his own hand, literally so, highlights the desperately sad story that occurs between him and Louise - one that would be outstanding were it not such an everyday occurrence in the lives of people disenfranchised by the society in which they live.
However, it is the relationship between Lea and Lenny that brings hope to the film, matching up the two most unlikely characters in a delicate and tender relationship. She is beautiful, willowy and bookish, spending a wonderful afternoon in a dusty basement underneath a bookshop, lost in the stories that surround her whilst, at the same time, Lenny, who is odd and geeky, sits in a video shop where the shelves labour under the weight of hardcore porn and blood-soaked gut-crunchers. That their relationship blossoms, albeit tentatively at first, when all others crumble around them leads one to think that Refn has a largely optimistic view of the world and, as the film ends, there is hope even in the most forgotten of lives.
In addition to featuring a varied number of relationships, Bleeder uses one audio effect throughout to indicate the increasing frustration felt by each character, although it is most noticeable with Leo, taking the form of a throbbing white noise that grows in volume depending on the action on screen. As examples, the conversations between Leo and Louise are accompanied by a dull background noise that remains just below the level at which the dialogue is mixed, whereas a beating in a club witnessed by Leo is drowned out by the volume at which this noise is played. Whilst this effect is present in the majority of scenes, one never tires of it so closely is it aligned to the desperation felt by the characters.
Lastly, the casting is terrific with each actor capable of expressing the emotions felt by their character without the need for a significant amount of dialogue. Indeed, as the film progressed, the subtitles became largely extraneous with it being possible to follow the action without using them, despite not speaking a word of Danish. Were the subtitles not fixed, it would have been interesting to have watched Bleeder without referring to them at all but the dismal presentation of the films ensured this test was not possible.
Bleeder has been transferred in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 but has not been enhanced for widescreen televisions, using the space offered by the black bar at the bottom of the screen to display fixed English subtitles. Despite the lack of an anamorphic transfer, the image isn't bad, using a source print that is clean and rich in colour but it is a sharpness and definition to the image that is noticeably lacking, with the end credits, for example, unreadable against a vivid red background.
Given that Metrodome's issue of Bleeder on DVD in 2000 was presented with a Danish Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, one would have expected this new version to receive the same treatment but whilst the film has been transferred with it's Danish-language track intact, Metrodome have only provided a 2.0 Stereo soundtrack this time round. Given the audio effects mentioned earlier, the lack of the 5.1 soundtrack is a great disappoint given that, in the moments in which the viewer is required to feel the pressure Leo is under, the intended sense of immersion is missing. Sadly, it is recommended that headphones are used to listen to the film as it was intended to be heard.
There are no extras included on this release of Bleeder.
Total Film mention in their review of this release that no matter how good it is, you will still prefer to watch Reservoir Dogs but I'm not entirely sure. Tarantino's films have a habit of impressing on a first watching but the superficial dialogue and characters mean that there is little to be gained from a second viewing. Nicolas Winding Refn's Bleeder, on the other hand, is a film rich in detail and characterisation, offering a substantial amount even on its second or third viewing. This is a wonderful film and with good word already being spread on his latest film, Fear X, Refn is a strong candidate for a director worth following in the future.
Unfortunately, however, as good as this is, the presentation of the film on DVD is awful. I have only mentioned Bleeder in this review but both this film and Pusher have been provided as part of a two-disc set by Metrodome. Sadly, not only was there but one disc is the review set delivered but what is here is not presented anamorphically, with permanent subtitles and a stereo soundtrack as opposed to the original 5.1 surround. That Pusher and Bleeder were made available as separate releases three years ago with a range of extras - commentary on the former, trailers on the latter - is all the more disappointing. This is a great film but the presentation is so poor that one cannot begin to recommend this outside of the sales - an exceptionally poor release.