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The Singular Nicolas Winding Refn Experience Arrives on Netflix

To appreciate a Refn project like ‘Copenhagen Cowboy’ is to accept that, sometimes, style wins out over substance

Netflix/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When polarizing Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn released his first television series in 2019, the streaming landscape was an entirely different place. Amazon, which distributed Refn’s show Too Old to Die Young, hadn’t yet put all its eggs in the “next Game of Thrones” basket; Netflix, fueled by persistent subscriber growth, continued to spend billions on original programming without hesitation; Disney+ arrived in the fall, riding a wave of goodwill for the company’s latest adorable merchandising opportunity; and HBO Max wouldn’t debut for another year. Fast-forward to 2023, and the biggest streamers are in various stages of crisis: Netflix is cutting costs along with password sharing, HBO Max is merging and purging, Disney has activated the emergency Iger Protocol, and Amazon is putting all of its faith (and most of its resources) into a small-screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. In short, the streaming bubble has officially burst, and the entertainment industry as a whole goes into 2023 dealing with the ramifications of that rupture.

Which brings us back to Refn: Amid all the shake-ups and financial uncertainty, the filmmaker has a new series out on Netflix, the evocatively named Copenhagen Cowboy. (My first thought was “Yellowstone but with Scandinavians,” which couldn’t be further from the truth.) Copenhagen Cowboy’s arrival is a bit of a surprise when you consider the contentious nature of Refn’s work, including his first swing at a TV show. Even the auteur’s biggest fans (including me) would admit that Too Old to Die Young—a 13-hour opus of stylized ultraviolence set in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeleswas cashed in on a blank check that came out of nowhere and wasn’t necessarily earned. Meanwhile, Refn hasn’t released a feature film since 2016’s The Neon Demon, and while he hopes to make another movie soon, he’s also conceded that Hollywood is “falling apart desperately.” With fewer potential avenues for his work, Refn has opted to stick with streaming, and Copenhagen Cowboy feels like a worthy compromise.

At just six episodes, all of which run under an hour, Copenhagen Cowboy should be more accessible—and presumably far cheaper to produce—than Refn’s grand Amazon experiment. The show is also something of a homecoming for the director, who filmed in his native Denmark for the first time since wrapping up his Pusher trilogy in 2005. Still, for better or for worse, Copenhagen Cowboy finds Refn continuing to double down on the thematic interests and languid pacing that have pulled the auteur further from the mainstream since he broke out with Drive.

Copenhagen Cowboy isn’t terribly concerned about its plot, but let’s cover the basics. The series centers on Miu (played by Angela Bundalovic), a mysterious young woman who moves among different criminal organizations because she is, as one character dubs her, a “lucky coin.” Essentially, Miu has vaguely defined supernatural powers that can bestow good fortune on those around her, but more importantly, she can just as quickly dole out punishment to anyone who deserves it. An avenging angel of sorts, Miu crosses paths with large-scale coke dealers, sex traffickers, and a serial killer who may also be a vampire—all while the audience is mostly left in the dark about our heroine’s origins and larger intentions.

In that respect, Miu is a familiar Refn protagonist: silent, brooding, and not to be messed with. (Think Ryan Gosling’s Driver in Drive or Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye in Valhalla Rising.) Perhaps the biggest wrinkle in the auteur’s usual formula is that Miu’s meek appearance belies her considerable strengths—she honestly resembles a young Agnès Varda going through a phase in which she’s really into tracksuits. But Copenhagen Cowboy lends more credence to the idea that, even if Refn is sticking to the same nihilistic impulses he’s channeled throughout his career, it doesn’t mean that the filmmaker isn’t capable of evolving.

Between The Neon Demon, Too Old to Die Young, and Copenhagen Cowboy, Refn has finally allowed female characters to drive the plot—and inflict much of the violence—in his work. (While Too Old to Die Young initially focuses on a couple of slimy male protagonists, the series culminates with two modern-day witches at the center of its story.) In Refn’s own words, Copenhagen Cowboy is a “female evolution” of his usual preoccupations, a fitting move considering the show stars his two daughters, Lola and Lizzielou Corfixen, while his wife, Liv Corfixen, is an executive producer. The female-driven approach to Refn’s latest criminal underworld—the three writers credited on the series are all women—is exemplified by a ridiculous recurring gag in which one repulsive male character’s voice is replaced by the snorting and squealing of pigs. (The hilarious bit is admittedly undermined by the real-life allegation that an actual pig was killed on the production.)

Refn’s use of aural cues to liken man’s baser instincts to those of animals isn’t exactly subtle; then again, what else would you expect from a director whose previous series featured a bunch of cops repeatedly chanting “FASCISM!” to the bewilderment of Miles Teller? Of course, provocation and self-indulgence go hand in hand in a Refn joint, especially when he’s given the space and freedom afforded by streaming. Whether or not Refn moved to the small screen because he was no longer finding any takers for his feature films, his divisive style is an intriguing fit for the stretched-out length of a TV show. (If Only God Forgives tested the audience’s patience at 90 minutes, imagine sitting through a six-hour series that moves at the same glacial pace.)

Copenhagen Cowboy isn’t going to win over anyone who wasn’t already fond of Refn’s schtick, but for his die-hard fans—however big or small that group may be—the show is effectively a greatest hits compilation. All the trademarks are there: a synth-heavy score cocreated by frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, a neon-drenched neo-noir aesthetic that wouldn’t feel out of place in an edgy perfume commercial, and slow 360-degree camera pans demanding that the viewer savor every eye-popping detail, lest they become bored out of their minds. This is as challenging as television can get, and while it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no denying that Refn is utterly singular in his image making. To appreciate a Refn project like Copenhagen Cowboy is to accept that, sometimes, style wins out over substance.

Courtesy of Netflix

Like Lars von Trier returning to The Kingdom Exodus or Olivier Assayas reimagining Irma Vep as an HBO miniseries, Refn is an art house filmmaker whose pivot to television hasn’t come at the expense of his unique sensibilities. For that reason alone, there’s something to be admired in the very existence of Copenhagen Cowboy, especially as the era of relentless spending by streaming services grinds to a halt. Incredibly, Copenhagen Cowboy appears to have been made with future seasons in mind: By the end of the sixth episode, the show introduces a formidable foil for Miu with her own supernatural abilities. (There is also a random cameo from a famous video game designer that will make sense only if you’re aware that Refn played a character in one of the designer’s projects.)

Leave it to Refn to create a series that really gets going only in its final moments, setting up a payoff that might never arrive. After all, if Netflix is in the business of axing original programs like 1899, which has broader genre appeal, what chance does Copenhagen Cowboy have of getting a second season? Considering Refn came up with the title Copenhagen Cowboy only because he liked putting the two words together, it seems unlikely he’s thinking that far ahead anyway. This carefree creative approach has served Refn well over the decades, and while the entertainment landscape isn’t nearly as welcoming to auteurs of his ilk as it once was, it wouldn’t surprise me if he lines up another project that tests the audience’s endurance for lingering camera pans, neon-lit compositions, and shocking ultraviolence. We’re reaching the “he can’t keep getting away with it!” stage of Refn’s career, but after spending six episodes in the familiar criminal netherworld of Copenhagen Cowboy, I can only surmise that the director is holding on to a “lucky coin” of his own.