Nicolas Winding Refn is one of, if not the most, divisive filmmakers working on the outskirts of Hollywood. The Danish director hit big with Cannes-winner Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, but his later efforts have been received less warmly.
Only God Forgives, which reunited Gosling and NWR, as he now mostly goes by, was panned by the critics and The Neon Demon, although ambitious in its exploration of the predatory and even cannibalistic undertones of the fashion industry, didn’t make quite the splash it was meant to.
Netflix’s new series, Copenhagen Cowboy, often feels like NWR’s greatest hits compilation. It ties together all the director’s favourite themes and his neon-drenched visual style. He has long been accused of valuing style over narrative substance, and Copenhagen Cowboy is another opportunity to make those accusations.
The plot, which there is little of, follows the mysterious, almost mythical Miu (Angela Bundalovic). She is mostly silent, often observing the chaos and violence happening around her. Touted as a good luck charm of sorts, she is moved around Denmark’s seedy, disgusting criminal underworld.
This isn’t NWR’s first foray into TV series. His previous show, Too Old To Die Young, starring Miles Teller, was ambitious, complex and utterly engrossing. Copenhagen Cowboy is NWR working on a smaller, more familiar scale, but it lacks the intrigue of his earlier work.
Copenhagen Cowboy is violent. This is a NWR show, after all, but the sudden bursts of violence are far more subdued and increasingly far apart. NWR also once again pairs violence and sex together. This time, the violators, and occasional victims, of Copenhagen Cowboy, often squeal like pigs. Quite literally, NWR layers actual pig noises into these scenes of brutal, degrading violence.
But whereas in Drive and Too Old To Die Young violence felt like a necessity, an expression of all the repressed feelings, in Copenhagen Cowboy it’s a much more elusive element. NWR has always excelled in finding the beauty and grace in humanity’s worst impulses, and Copenahgen Cowboy has some surprisingly tender moments, but overall the series lacks contrast.
Visually, the first few episodes are dynamic and impressive. If you already love NWR and his signature style – neon lights, slow pans across rooms and static camera positions – you’ll love Copenhagen Cowboy. But it quickly grows tiresome and repetitive, and it loses its effectiveness. What once was new and exciting is now stale and dull.
As far as protagonists go, Miu starts off as a fascinating one. She’s quiet and stoic, not unlike Gosling’s Driver in Drive. But whereas Carey Mulligan’s Irene was our ‘in’ into the Driver’s inner life and his humanity, Miu feels unreachable. We never gain much insight into her or who she really is, what motivates her.
Later episodes reveal a few details from her past, but by then, the series has turned sour, and the narrative has sprawled in multiple different, less exciting directions. It’s a shame because there are some bold artistic choices here, and in many ways, Copenhagen Cowboy feels like NWR operating at his most comfortable and confident.
But maybe that comfort also translates to irrelevance. There is much to enjoy in Copenhagen Cowboy’s first three episodes, but it lacks the pull and depth of NWR’s best work, even if Cliff Martinez’s thumping score is a revelatory one.
Copenhagen Cowboy is now streaming on Netflix.