Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Copenhagen Cowboy’ Is a Beautiful Redundancy

The "Drive" and "Neon Demon" director revisits his favorite motifs in a Netflix series that's too slow to divulge any fresh ideas.
Copenhagen Cowboy COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2022
"Copenhagen Cowboy"
Courtesy of Netflix

When Nicolas Winding Refn first made the leap from theatrical films to streaming series, he followed in the outsized footsteps of his indulgent predecessors: He went long. “Too Old To Die Young,” his 2019 Prime Video original, isn’t just 13 hours long; it’s three hours longer than the 10-hour season he was supposed to shoot. Like David Lynch returning to “Twin Peaks,” Refn was initially hooked by the prospect of telling a story that unfolded over whatever amount of time he deemed sufficient, but (also like Lynch) the Danish provocateur was further fascinated by the ways streaming reshaped the form. He believed younger audiences see the internet “as a kind of coexistence — like it’s a beam around them that they’ll just drop in and drop out of,” and he made his first TV show to be consumed similarly. Watch all 13 hours, start to finish, or just pick up in the middle — as anyone who reviewed its Cannes premiere was forced to do — and call it quits whenever you like.

“Appreciate the experience,” Refn said in 2019. “Thirteen hours is a long time in someone’s life.”

“Too Old To Die Young” didn’t exactly take the world by storm. While Prime Video doesn’t release viewing statistics, the company also didn’t pick up additional episodes (and the announcement was met with more expectant shrugs than scorned outrage). Still, Refn’s interest in streaming itself — in exploring how the audience experience could and should affect his choices as a writer and director — was exciting. Rather than simply inflating a two-hour story into an eight-hour limited series (or cashing a paycheck at the peak of peak TV content), Refn wanted to tailor his craft specifically for streaming. Artistic mediums! What a concept!

Sadly, “Copenhagen Cowboy” is a step backward. Not only does Refn’s new Netflix series check all the auteur’s signature boxes — searing neon light, near-silent protagonist, synth-heavy Cliff Martinez score — while revisiting plots, scenes, and even shots from his feature films (“Only God Forgives” and “The Neon Demon” feel particularly consequential), but it’s so slow to develop, so obtuse, and so open-ended, the first season doesn’t feel like a season at all; it feels like a pilot. Refn hasn’t made a series fans can pop in and out of, he’s made one that doesn’t even get started until we’ve sat through six hours of hazy, idea-forming set-up. It’s not the work of someone looking toward the future, but of someone repeating the mistakes of the past — sometimes willfully, sometimes not.

Meet Miu (Angela Bundalovic). Quiet with a boyish pixie cut and wide unblinking eyes that, aptly, see everything, Miu is first introduced as little more than an unwise “investment.” Rosella (Dragana Milutinovic) “paid a lot of money” for Miu to come live with her, in the hopes that she’d help the older woman get pregnant. Miu is special, we’re told, because she brings good luck, but the people who believe in her supernatural aura aren’t exactly trustworthy. Rosella is a cruel, desperate woman, who cuts and sells locks of Miu’s hair to equally desperate “friends.” Later, she reneges on an already lopsided deal by threatening to have Miu deported. Oh, and she’s living in a house filled with sex slaves, owned and traded by her brother, Andres (Ramadan Huseini).

Is Miu truly gifted or is she just going along with an assumption that protects her? The question unintentionally lingers over the first few hours, as Miu moves through the space in silence, only speaking when explicitly asked to do so (and sometimes not even then). Refn has said this series is his “version of a superhero show,” making Miu his de facto superhero, but that’s not how she reads sans outside context. Refn’s gliding camera captures Miu learning about her captors and doing what she can to survive. She spots Rosella’s husband raping one of the female hostages (or one of “Andres’ dolls,” as they’re called). She learns a secret about Andres’ 18-year-old daughter. As Rosella’s favorite, she uses her “perks” around the house to help the other women, even giving her cell phone to Cimona (Valentina Dejanovic) so she can call her mother (who doesn’t answer — or call back).

"Copenhagen Cowboy" (top) and "Only God Forgives"
“Copenhagen Cowboy” (top) and “Only God Forgives”Courtesy of Netflix / Courtesy Image

For the better part of the series, if not the entire first season, Miu is more skilled than superpowered, more intuitive than magical. And that would be fine, except it means there’s even less separating her from every other Refn lead. The writer-director has been recycling motifs for as long as he’s been honing his style, but where “Copenhagen Cowboy” often evokes awe in its precise compositions (wihth credit to DP Magnus Nordenhof Jønck), it proves frustrating in how familiar its story beats turn out. Another descent into hell. Another deceptive mother. Another god-like Asian antagonist who demands to be loved or feared, if not both at once. Another examination of emotional repression through explosive violence. Another dozen-odd metaphors, as disgusting as they are blunt. (“Men are pigs” has rarely been conveyed so literally, or with such repulsion.) By now, Refn’s exacting aesthetic choices are begging to be paired with a script that earns such entrancing imagery. Instead, his latest comes across as pretty pictures we’ve seen before.

Worse still, it didn’t have to be. As Miu’s journey continues, “Copenhagen Cowboy” nods toward a semi-episodic structure — told in mini-arcs, where Miu encounters a new bad guy to dispatch every other hour, including a local crime lord and a crooked lawyer — before revealing itself as a misaligned attempt at (very) delayed gratification. One early foe (who’s dispatched with such ease as to function as comic relief) returns rather bluntly, with a more powerful sibling in tow, and suddenly, pieces once thought disparate start getting tied forcefully together. (There’s a group of businessmen who resurface as a way of connecting two threads, and I’m convinced Refn cast himself as one of them just so viewers would recognize an otherwise amorphous group of white men in suits.)

Without getting into spoilers, Miu’s archenemy isn’t revealed until the finale, and they’re introduced in a way that completely hides their significance. (Press notes had to inform me of one late-arriving character’s impact on Miu, because the scene meant to do so is cool but inscrutable — aka, a classic Refn.) If Refn and his co-writers, Sara Isabella Jønsson and Johanne Algren, had approached the first season with urgency over presumption, perhaps we could’ve seen how Miu and her nemesis actually impact one another; perhaps there would be a new and exciting story to tell in their dynamic, or in acknowledging Miu’s abilities, or in anything, really, other than the tragic redundancies depicted instead.

It’s a rookie mistake in TV to make a season assuming you’ll get a second; that, eventually, you’ll be able to clarify all your points and round out all your characters. Veterans know there are no guarantees, and more importantly, they know that audiences crave some form of closure — a season may be part of a larger series, but it can still stand on its own. “Copenhagen Cowboy” can’t, and it likely won’t grow any larger because of it. If his intention, as he’s discussed, was to explore a “female evolution” of his past characters, then he needed to evolve faster. The world doesn’t need any more stretched-out superhero stories, nor does it need Refn on repeat.

Grade: C+

“Copenhagen Cowboy” premieres Thursday, January 5 on Netflix.

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