Netflix Copenhagen Cowboy Review: Nicolas Winding Refn Stuck

The ‘Drive’ and ‘Neon Demon’ director revisits his favorite themes in a Netflix series that’s too slow to spawn new ideas.

When Nicolas Winding Refn first made the leap from feature film to streaming series, he followed in the oversized footsteps of his compliant predecessors: he walked a long way. 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 relay he was supposed to shoot. Like David Lynch, who returns to Twin Peaks, Refn was initially excited at the prospect of telling a story unfolding over whatever period of time he felt was sufficient, but (also like Lynch) the Danish provocateur moved on fascinated by the way streaming changed history. He believed younger viewers saw the internet “as a kind of coexistence – like it was a beam around them that they just hop in and out of,” and he made his first TV show to be consumed in a similar way. Watch every 13 hours, from start to finish, or just start in the middle — like everyone reviewing the Cannes premiere had to do — and finish whenever you like.

“Treasure the experience,” Refn said in 2019. “Thirteen hours is a long time in a person’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 hasn’t included any additional episodes either (and the announcement was met with expectant shrugs rather than scorned outrage). Still, Refn’s interest in streaming itself—in exploring how audiences’ experiences could and should inform their decisions 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 adapt his craft specifically for streaming. Artistic Media! What a concept!

Unfortunately, Copenhagen Cowboy is a step backwards. Refn’s new Netflix series not only checks all of the author’s signature boxes — scorching neon lights, near-silent protagonist, synthesizer-heavy Cliff Martinez score — while also revisiting plots, scenes, and even footage from his feature films (“Only God Forgives” and “The Neon Demon feels particularly consequential), but it’s so slow-moving, so blunt, and so open-ended that the first season doesn’t feel like a season at all; it feels like a pilot. Refn didn’t make a series that fans can hop on and off, he made one that doesn’t even get going until we’ve sat through six hours of hazy, idea-generating build-up. It is not the work of someone looking to the future, but of someone repeating the mistakes of the past – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

Meet Miu (Angela Bundalovic). Quiet, with a boyish pixie cut and big unblinking eyes that aptly see everything, Miu is initially presented as little more than an unwise “investment.” Rosella (Dragana Milutinovic) “paid a lot of money” to let Miu live with her in hopes that she would help the older woman get pregnant. Miu is special, we’re told, because she brings good luck, but people who believe in her supernatural aura aren’t exactly trustworthy. Rosella is a cruel, desperate woman who cuts Miu’s hair and sells it to equally desperate “friends”. She later reneges on an already one-sided deal by threatening to have Miu deported. Oh, and she lives in a house full of sex slaves owned and traded by her brother Andres (Ramadan Huseini).

Is Miu really gifted or is she just going along with an assumption that protects her? The question remains unintentionally for the first few hours as Miu moves around the room in silence, only speaking when specifically asked (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 it reads out of context. Refn’s sliding camera captures Miu as she learns about her captors and does whatever it takes to survive. She witnesses Rosella’s husband raping one of the female hostages (or one of “Andres’ dolls” as they are known). She learns a secret about Andres’ 18-year-old daughter. As Rosella’s darling, she uses her “perks” around the house to help out the other women, even giving Cimona (Valentina Dejanovic) her cell phone so she can call her mom (who doesn’t answer — or call back).

"Copenhagen cowboy" (above) and "Only God forgives"

“Copenhagen Cowboy” (above) and “Only God Forgives”

Courtesy of Netflix / Courtesy Image

For most of the series if not all of the first season, Miu is more skilled than overpowered, more intuitive than magical. And that would be fine, except it means it’s even less separated from any other Refn leadership. The writer-director recycles motifs as long as he’s honed his style, but where Copenhagen Cowboy often inspires awe in its precise compositions (with credit to DP Magnus Nordenhof Jønck), it proves frustrating how familiar its story might seem to turn out to be . Another descent into hell. Another cheating mother. Another god-like Asian antagonist who demands to be loved or feared, if not both at the same time. Another exploration of emotional suppression through explosive violence. Another dozen metaphors, as gross as they are blunt. (“Men are pigs” has seldom been delivered so literally or so repulsively.) Meanwhile, Refn’s sophisticated aesthetic choices beg to be paired with a script worthy of such gorgeous visuals. Instead, his latest looks like pretty pictures we’ve seen before.

Worse, it didn’t have to be. As Miu’s journey continues, “Copenhagen Cowboy” nods towards a semi-episodic structure – told in mini-arcs, in which Miu encounters a new villain every two hours to take down, including a local crime lord and a corrupt lawyer – before it reveals itself as a misaligned attempt at (much) delayed gratification. An early foe (taken down so easily it doubles as comic relief) returns fairly bluntly, with a more powerful sibling in tow, and suddenly pieces that were once thought separate are forcibly bound together. (There’s a group of businessmen who reappear to connect 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 going into spoilers, Miu’s nemesis is not revealed until the finale, and they are introduced in a way that completely obscures their meaning. (Press releases had to let me know about the effects of a late-arriving character on Miu because the scene for it is cool but inscrutable — aka a classic Refn.) If Refn and his co-writers Sara Isabella Jønsson and Johanne Algren, had the approached season one with urgency rather than pretentiousness, maybe we could have seen how Miu and her nemesis actually influence each other; Perhaps there would be a new and exciting story to be told in its dynamic, or in the acknowledgment of Miu’s abilities, or in anything, really, other than the tragic layoffs portrayed instead.

It’s a beginner’s mistake in television to do one season expecting to get a second; that eventually you will be able to clarify all your points and round off all your characters. Veterans know there are no guarantees, and more importantly, they know audiences yearn for some form of closure — a season can be part of a larger series, but it can still stand on its own. “Copenhagen Cowboy” can’t do that and probably won’t get any bigger as a result. If, as he discussed, his intent was to explore a “female evolution” of his earlier characters, then he needed to evolve faster. The world doesn’t need longer superhero stories, nor does it need Refn on repeat.

Grade: C+

Copenhagen Cowboy premieres Thursday, January 5th on Netflix.

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Lindsay Lowe

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