The name Nicholas Winding Refn means controversy these days – From Neon Demon to Too Old To Die Young, the Danish director is no stranger to extremely divided reviews. In the eyes of his critics, no real merit exists in his dreamy, ultra-violent vision – beneath the spectacle, there is only hollowness; to Refn’s fanatics, however, he is a revolutionary and an aesthete who has broken free from the shackles of traditional filmmaking.
Whatever your opinion of him might be, there is no doubt that Copenhagen Cowboy, Refn’s newest Netflix miniseries, is the next step in his artistic departure. From grounded, gritty crime dramas of existential struggle (Drive, Bronson) to increasingly abstract visual experiments of the occult and human desires (Valhalla Rising, Only God Forgives), he experiments with both beauty and flaw.
In the story, we travel to modern Copenhagen’s grim underworld – both metaphorically and literally – through the mysterious Miu (Angela Bundalovic), the titular “cowboy”. The image of which has been extracted from its genre connotation and thrust into that of the classical Refnian protagonist: an amoral criminal who ventures the earth alone, searching for meaning in his/her life. After being sold as a human lucky coin all her life, Miu embarks on a journey of revenge with her powers, encountering various criminals and, eventually, supernatural beings.
There is no doubt that Refn is capable of writing complicated, dynamic characters. However, they are not Copenhagen Cowboy’s – nor any of his experimental works’ – strong suit; a price it has to pay as they operate on aesthetics but not characters. Compared to humans with purposes and emotions, the ensemble is more like lore pieces that showcase a strange, alien world. This approach can work: Too Old To Die Young has offered some of the quirkiest and most enticing characters I have seen in a series. When it is unsuccessful, however, the audience is stuck in the excruciatingly slow dialogues, desperately waiting for the next orgasmic fight scene to happen, which, when it does, is quite a feast to the eyes and the ears.
Unfortunately, Copenhagen Cowboy’s elements fell through the cracks. We see an Albanian human trafficker, a triad boss, an overachieving drug dealer, and a king-pin-turned-lawyer crammed together, à la Lynchian side characters, except with none of the charm (Hideo Kojima appeared as an odd mob consultant for two minutes – it felt more engaging than all of them combined). Naturally, the story, which mainly depicts Miu’s interactions with them, soured.
Yet with the heavy price comes stunning images: with electric colors and chiaroscuro, Refn, once again, transforms the world inside of the screen into a liminal dreamscape that gushes surreal beauty, where casual streets and buildings become desolate kingdoms of vices. If Too Old To Die Young is the fruition of his aesthetics after being perfected over the years, then Copenhagen Cowboy is a demonstration of what the formula is capable of: as Cliff Martinez/Julia Winding’s synth-wave soundtrack reaches its crescendo, we watch, drenched in over-saturation, eccentric characters interact, between every sentence a painfully unnatural pause; the still camera zooms in and out of their expressionless faces, occasionally slowly panning around. The magic of Refn’s visuals is truly unique to him and cannot be experienced elsewhere.
The most refreshing aspect about Copenhagen Cowboy is the splash of supernatural that is told as a complementary, mostly parallel story. One of the main antagonists, Niklas (Andreas Lykke Jørgensen) is a vampire who drives a silver Maserati sedan and dwells in a giant castle. Coming from a long line of cannibalistic sadists, the young vampire quenches his blood thirst by murdering young women that he picks up. A hybrid between folktales and gothic horror, this slice of Copenhagen Cowboy’s narrative opens a new, exciting door for Refn’s future work, even though the story arc was underused and was concluded with too much abruptness.
During an interview at the Venice Film Festival, the now 52-year-old auteur confessed that Miu is his version of a superhero, and the series was, indeed, a superhero story that kept evolving as the production proceeds – I couldn’t have said it better myself. Copenhagen Cowboy is a superhero noir drama that turned into sci-fi that turned into horror. By the end of the six-hour-long episodes, there are genres on top of genres, oddballs on top of oddballs, fusing with his directorial trademarks, mashing into a beautiful, bright-colored mess.