Copenhagen Cowboy finds Nicolas Winding Refn working in his native Denmark for the first time since the 2005 conclusion to his Pusher trilogy, and yet it isn’t a case of the auteur returning to his roots. Rather, the writer/director’s six-episode Netflix series is less a gritty, frenzied crime saga than a heavily stylized genre hybrid on (relative) par with his 2019 Amazon series Too Old to Die Young.
Akin to a noir-horror-Western that operates in a trancelike haze and feels cobbled together from whatever cinematic detritus was floating through its maker’s slumbering reveries, it’s pure, undiluted, off-the-wall Refn—a description that that will strike some viewers as an invitation and others as a warning.
Copenhagen Cowboy, which premiered Jan. 5 on Netflix, boasts bits and pieces of numerous Refn predecessors, from the swoony action of Drive and the Asian-flavored brutality of Only God Forgives, to the fashion-model Grand Guignol of The Neon Demon and the misty menace of Valhalla Rising. Refn has never been shy about wearing his influences on his sleeve, and his latest features nods not only to his own oeuvre but to his favorite celluloid godfather Stanley Kubrick (via multiple The Shining-inspired sequences), Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return.
Far from merely a derivative pastiche, however, the director synthesizes those and many other familiar elements into a uniquely operatic nightmare of urban warfare, misogynistic exploitation, and supernatural heroism and vengeance. It’s all set to regular collaborator Cliff Martinez’s entrancing synth-heavy score, which coats everything in downy layers of unnerving and romantic electronica.
Per Refn trademark, Copenhagen Cowboy is color-coded to the hilt and staged with languorous portentousness, and the further it proceeds along its helter-skelter path, the more it devolves into narrative and visual abstraction—a direction implied from the first of innumerable shots of its protagonist, Miu (Angela Bundalovic), silhouetted in darkness by by red and blue illumination.
Sporting a boyish haircut and wearing a collection of tracksuits, Miu is a woman of unknown origins, who is introduced arriving at a Danish brothel owned by Rosella (Dragana Milutinović), an Albanian madam who, despite her advanced age, yearns to get pregnant. Rosella believes Miu is the key to having a child because the young woman is a “lucky charm” with the power to spread good fortune—or, as it subsequently turns out, to bring about chaos and ruin should she be antagonized.
Miu is a passive agent of prosperity who agrees to help Rosella for a hefty price, only to have her job complicated by growing feelings for Cimona (Valentina Dejanovic), one of Rosella’s captive prostitutes who endures a “hell” overseen by Rosella’s pimp brother André (Ramadan Huseini), whose side gig involves singing in music videos.
Miu and Cimona’s bond is more subliminally felt than overtly articulated or acted upon, and it leads to chaos and tragedy for both, with Cimona running afoul of a serial killer named Nicklas (Andreas Lykke Jørgensen)—who’s a member of an ancient family of homicidal (vampiric?) maniacs—and Miu taking shelter with Mother Hulda (Li Ii Zhang), who runs a nearby Chinese restaurant and works for intimidating gangster Chiang (Jason Hendil-Forssell), whose victims she feeds to her pigs.
Swine play a recurring role in Copenhagen Cowboy, not only as devourers of the dead but as kindred spirits to Rosella’s loutish, debt-ridden husband Sven (Per Thiim Thim), who only speaks in snorts and squeals. Refn’s humor is so dry and deadpan that it’s sometimes easy to miss, such as his own brief cameo as the silent member of a trio of businessmen with a fondness for drugs and a relationship with shady underworld types. Miu also has connections to denizens of Copenhagen’s dark and fetid corners. Her history, though, remains a mystery, as do her powers, which include impressive martial-arts skills and the ability to heal and restore – a gift that proves of particular interest to Chiang, who suffers from pains that only Miu is capable of alleviating.
Copenhagen Cowboy ties itself up in knots, with various characters bound together by birth and death, desire and repulsion, love and hate. Unseen connections are rampant in Refn and co-creator Sara Isabella Jønsson’s free-floating story, whose trajectory is unpredictable and whose particulars alternate between beguiling, shocking, and baffling. All the while, Refn habitually returns to the same motifs (female faces in mirrors; neon lines; blooming flowers) and the same hypnotic formal devices: long takes, minimal dialogue, dreamy crossfades and incessantly revolving camerawork. Refn’s rotating pans create a sense of falling into a vortex, of spinning out of control, and of annihilating infinity, and the more he employs them, the more it seems he’s determined to unmoor the proceedings from any recognizable plane of existence.
Miu stalks an ethereal specter and there are hints throughout that she might be a ghost. Trying to pin down concrete answers about Copenhagen Cowboy, however, is futile, given that it’s governed not by real-world logic but by Refn’s idiosyncratic intuition—a notion epitomized by moments in which his camera briefly turns its attention away from its human subjects to take in some evocative environmental detail.
As with Ryan Gosling’s Only God Forgives fighter, Miu is a figure of few words, and those she encounters along her wayward odyssey are equally peculiar, the most extreme being Nicklas, who has a decidedly Oedipal relationship with his mother that’s exacerbated by a father who travels to “uncivilized continents” preaching about “the ultimate symbol of power that our Lord created: A prick.”
By the time one character, having barely survived being eaten by hungry pigs, resurrects a corpse with the blood of a slain relative, Copenhagen Cowboy has ceased playing by any rules. That off-the-deep-end quality will thrill those who are attuned to Refn’s buzzy sexualized-violence wavelength and alienate anyone looking for coherence.
Conceived and executed for maximum atmospheric electricity and minimum lucidity, it’s a long-form tumble down the rabbit hole of its creator’s perverse mind, rife with incest, rape, murder, and all manner of grotesqueries that the director imbues with jarring and disquieting sensuality. It’s difficult to imagine casual Netflix subscribers taking to Refn’s unbridled-Id thriller, but fans of the unpredictable, the bizarre, and the deviant will be delighted to see the streamer investing so heavily in the auteur’s flights of phantasmagoric fancy.
The Daily Beast