Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s international career has been supported by a substantial popularity (which can be almost perceived as a modern-day cult-classic status) garnered by film bros and “sad boy cinema” enthusiasts alike who have been allured by his methodical genre-morph aesthetics. So now comes the time for his newest piece of slow-paced, disturbia odyssey – a six hours-long TV series by the name of Copenhagen Cowboy. For many, including myself, it’s a surefire strong start to the new year!
The series follows Miu (Angela Bundalovic), an enigmatic drifter, deemed fit to be somewhat of a prodigy of sorts, who finds herself in the midst of an interweaving crime saga. It's filled to the brim with revenge and violence, set in the grimy, crime-syndicated underworld of Copenhagen (in both the real world and fantasy sense).
As a regular visitor of Refn’s work, I believe it’s important for rookies to note that Copenhagen Cowboy rectifies a lot of the filmmaker’s recycled tropes from previous projects: his eager approach to an off-balanced ratio of minimal dialogue and some-of-the-time narrative, stretched to maximum, dreaded, sorrowful vibes. While Refn’s fetishistic noir attributes are found to varying degrees in past projects, Copenhagen Cowboy puts them directly on the front line, allowing for an all-timer slow burn momentum to linger through the series. As we watch Miu wander from numerous locales, whether it be in a pragmatic sense or pure brain-acid, cosmic locations, there is a constant change-up between the real world and her metaphorical dreamscape.
When it comes to Refn, it is worth remarking that his visuals alone tend to leave the most impact by the time the credits roll. In Cowboy’s case, they are implemented via the use of pretty, bright and low-lit neon, unnaturally cast upon the concrete walls and dressing rooms, and even a giant castle! Character details too, found on pastel suits or vibrant blue jumpsuits, make clear that lush, arresting images are deemed the top priority. He never fails to impress in how he devises clever ways to frame his characters under the nose of stark lighting in an almost claustrophobic fashion.
Although a consistent mood within Refn’s movies tends to come from color alone, Copenhagen Cowboy adopts a sadder, sci-fi aesthetic to differ from the usual vibrant pinks and reds he gravitates toward. Simply traded in for more somber and muted exterior shades, his images are married with crisp, stark blacks and whites, culminating in one of Refn’s most techno-color hypno drones yet.
Where plotting differentiates from the typical Refn affair is Copenhagen Cowboy’s protagonist and the ecosystem that surrounds her. Previous projects see the filmmaker tackle the running theme of the lone-wolf, hyper-masculine approach from the numerous Ryan Gosling collaborations and 2021’s Too Old To Die Young (which might still be my favorite thing he’s done). His TV venture comes across more like a spiritual successor to his 2016 feature, The Neon Demon, in which his half-baked attempt at an understanding of womanhood, the trials and tribulations that come with relationships and identity both feature prominently in both. I can’t help but find humor in his naive attempt at a feminist approach to the already contemporary ultra-violent and extra horny ronin. Whether it be the sporadic, grungy violence or the wandering from location to location aspect through the crime-ridden Copenhagen wastelands, the atmosphere makes for some of the deliberately less-appealing location work in Refn’s filmography.
The actual plot is derivative of what the filmmaker has already tackled before, maintaining the slow burn one would come to anticipate from him. By the same token, it does feel less meaty than what has come before. Even so, the series is natural enough in its narrative progression, character arcs and action sequencing, the highlight being a nifty yet dorky hand-to-hand combat sequence in a slaughterhouse/pig pen, eventually leading to a guy getting eaten at by said pigs. Gnarly!
It’s also incredibly endearing to watch Refn navigate a consistency in style and quality through the 10+ years of his set-in-stone craftsmanship in different avenues. The last two of his works were series rather than films, indicating that he has successfully convinced Netflix to burn money on his own ideas and self-indulgent neon wavelengths. It’s nothing short of respectable on an artistry level.
Copenhagen Cowboy has all the stimulating, hallmark pegs that define a Refn classic and is an absolute acolyte for the guy’s genre-fare catalog. I can’t help but get tractor-beamed into every slow pan, crossfade and soulful stare between characters. Despite my quibbles with its egg-on-face attempt at a gender political narrative, everything around it is so unbelievably vibey that I am able to look past the negatives. So, rock on, Refn. As far as I’m concerned, I’m still in the minuscule minority who believe that if you keep making your self-indulgent, fetishistic nonsense, the world will eventually, collectively reach a harmonic euphoria, coming to the worldwide agreement that something so idiosyncratic and abstract is worth cherishing.