Copenhagen Cowboy Explores a Criminal Underworld in a Familiar, Neon Light
Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest project sticks to familiar themes and direction as it follows a mysterious woman in search of vengeance as she navigates a sprawling but connected criminal underworld.
Copenhagen Cowboy Review
Few directors seem to be getting away with doing whatever they want than Nicolas Winding Refn. Someone who seems to be constantly given a blank cheque since Drive – a film that is decidedly mainstream compared to every other one of the auteur’s works – Refn’s penchant for neon-lit, blood-soaked violence just seems so inaccessible at this point. Especially since the director’s efforts post-Drive have leaned more toward atmosphere than they have a straightforward narrative. Returning to his Danish roots with a show that feels narratively like an extension of his tremendous trilogy of Pusher films except through the lens of Only God Forgives, Refn’s Copenhagen Cowboy is another such example of the director mining familiar tensions through his own unique, and slightly impenetrable, style.
Created by Refn and co-developed with Sara Isabella Jønsson Vedde, Copenhagen Cowboy starts compelling enough: a mysterious woman with strange powers named Miu (Angela Bundalovic) is brought to a house outside of Copenhagen where she finds herself used for other peoples’ gain. Within the span of six episodes, Miu traverses Copenhagen’s seedier side and navigates the criminal underworld where she comes face-to-face with some of the vilest people that reside within its shadows. If you’re approaching Copenhagen Cowboy looking for something that values storytelling over style, this must be your first time diving into Refn’s most recent works (or NWR as he has come to style his name as of late).
There’s an otherworldly feeling to everything in Copenhagen Cowboy, beginning with Miu and her origins. She’s brought to Rosella’s (Dragana Milutinovic) home in the aptly titled first episode, “Miu the Mysterious”, where the show begins hinting at a supernatural angle that it never shakes. It’s never quite clear who or what Miu is, but she has power over people that can be both healing and devastating. Some characters see her gift as an opportunity to better themselves, some as an opportunity to escape the life they have, and some know better than to play with fire.
The criminal network that Miu finds herself trying to survive and endure readily brings to mind the Danish drug world that Refn so meticulously brought to life in the Pusher films. He has always leaned into the unsavory parts of humanity and life’s struggles are not fleeting but instead constant. There’s a repetition of pain that eats away at the soul until you’re nothing but a husk, seemingly dead inside but still existing within a corporeal form. No character in a Refn film is complete without destruction, but what makes Copenhagen Cowboy fascinating is that Miu’s heartbreak feels empathetic rather than internal. She sees the pain in the world and watches as humanity rips itself apart, but can’t help herself from intervening. Is she a witch? Or an angel?
These questions and more gnaw away as Refn digs deeper into his admiration for women as people capable of feats beyond imagination. While the show opens with a man strangling a woman to death on a pig farm and Miu herself bears witness to the exploitation of women at the hands of various men, it’s merely setting the table for a series of vengeful acts against men who hide behind masculinity, money, and connections as a sign of strength. From here, Copenhagen Cowboy becomes the spiritual extension of Only God Forgives aesthetically and thematically but in a far more direct manner.
Storylines begin spreading out and their connections appear disparate outside of Miu’s presence in all of them. Impotence and legacy are engrained in the mind of Nicklas (Andreas Lykke Jørgensen), a man of wealth whose father attributes genitals and the ability to procreate as a sign of strength. Then there’s Mr. Chiang (Jason Hendil-Forssell): a crime lord succumbing to migraines who has also taken Mother Hulda’s (Li Ii Zhang) daughter hostage and can only find respite from Miu’s mysterious powers. Meanwhile, Rosella’s brother, Andre (Ramadan Huseini), acts tough as he flexes his wealth that is gained from exploiting unsuspecting women coming to Copenhagen for a new start.
It’s a sinister collage of male ego that Refn brings together in perhaps too ambitious of a manner. Each storyline serves its own purpose and dives into its own piece of Copenhagen’s criminal underbelly, but once it comes out the other side the moral is sometimes difficult to discern besides the obvious: it’s a cruel, cruel world. Occasionally justice can be served but within the confines of Refn’s vision of life, it’s minute and almost inconsequential. Is there a way for the scales to truly be tipped? Or is the arrival of a presence like Miu merely someone staving off a complete upset of power?
It’s somewhat surprising then that Copenhagen Cowboy doesn’t feel any more languid than Refn’s other works. Every episode is directed by him and it’s felt in every frame. Magnus Nordenhof Jønck delivers the composition and expert cinematography that Refn fans crave, and the show abuses the same slow-panning camera movements repeatedly to varying effects. Meanwhile, duties are shared for music between Peter Kyed, Cliff Martinez, Peter Peter, and Julian Winding as they craft a soundscape that is the heartbeat of every one of Refn’s films. The score really might be the standout here and as it moves between synthwave and darker more ominous tones that complement the visuals, it also overpowers at just the right moments; perfectly calibrating itself to the show’s momentum.
The extensions from Only God Forgives go further into overt Eastern worship with Miu immediately resorting to martial arts as the predominant way she takes down enemies. The choreography is similar to the film as well with its few brawls moving slower than you’d expect as if time itself is slowing to a crawl to examine the graceful movements. Refn’s love for martial arts is obvious but those who were disappointed by the significant lack of fighting in Only God Forgives will be pleased to know that while it’s not the main focus here either, it is much better handled and with more attention.
Copenhagen Cowboy is an easy sell to those who have enjoyed the director’s more recent works; especially if you enjoyed Too Old To Die Young or Only God Forgives. It can still be just as impenetrable, but it leaves behind this feeling that gives it its power. Much like Miu, you’re unsure what exactly her purpose is but if you approach her with curiosity rather than hostility, you will understand if you’re on the same wavelength. As characters come and go and Copenhagen Cowboy winds down, it continues to waft in a supernatural aura both intoxicating and alluring.