Copenhagen Cowboy (2023)

Nicolas Winding Refn | 6 episodes (47 – 56 minutes)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s enigmatic odyssey through Copenhagen’s criminal underworld of sex traffickers, drug lords, and vampires is not the sort of Netflix series that flies by with propulsive momentum. It demands patience, a stomach for the grotesque, and a certain willingness to fall under its violent, neon-soaked trance, effectively playing to the same niche portion of viewers who could abide the icy detachment of Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon. Copenhagen Cowboy feels much more epic in scope than either of those films though, marking Refn’s second foray into television following 2019’s Too Old to Die Young, and his first in his native Danish language since 2005’s Pusher 3. Elements of the supernatural have certainly crept into his slow-burn thrillers before, but by centring the mysteriously superpowered Miu in his nocturnal vision of Denmark’s capital city, this Gothic neo-noir western effectively marks his most surreal venture into the paranormal yet.

The full extent of Miu’s skillset only really comes through gradual revelations though. Of this six-episode series, episode 1 may be the weakest overall, taking its time to set her up as a ‘lucky charm’ hired out by wealthy clientele. The first person we meet seeking this good fortune is Rosella, the middle-aged matriarch of a peculiar crime family, who wishes to fall pregnant with Miu’s assistance. At a house party, the androgynous young woman is passed around, stroked, and has snippets of her hair cut off by guests, effectively being objectified in a similar manner as the undocumented immigrants being pimped out from Rosella’s basement. The escape of one of these women, Cimona, in the final minutes of this episode sets in motion one of the series’ main plot threads, which sends her into the murderous hands of the blond, baby-faced Nicklas.

Parts of the first episode feel reminiscent of The Neon Demon with scenes in neon-lit change rooms and beautiful, stoic women.
Miu’s first instance of payback ends episode 2 – a glorious, blazing set piece.

From here, Refn continues to develop Copenhagen Cowboy as a psychedelic battle between abusive patriarchal institutions and the women they exploit. In episode 2 we meet Mother Hulda, the owner of a Chinese restaurant who we later learn has had her daughter taken by local gangster Mr Chiang. Though Refn’s dialogue is impassive and his actors’ facial expressions are stoic to the point of being inhuman, the strongest connection between any two characters may be the one here between Hulda and Miu, who sets out on a mission to get her daughter back. Just as she can bless people, so too can she apparently bring bad luck to those who deserve it, and as a skilled martial artist and clairvoyant, she poses a threat formidable enough to take down one major villain in a ludicrously anticlimactic fight.

For all the slow pacing and long takes, Refn remains a very active editor, using long dissolves over Miu’s first direct interaction with Nicklas.

In essence, Miu is an avenging angel of sorts, even framed in one key shot preceding a significant showdown with a ring light around her head like a halo, and in another with eagle wings stretching out behind her. She keeps any strong emotions she might possess locked up under the blue tracksuit that she wears like armour, its stiff turtleneck reaching all the way up to her chin, and simply through her penetrating gaze she can bring Siberian gangsters crumbling to the floor, wracked with fear and regret.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I’m just looking at you.”

Inspired framing of the eagle wings and halo behind Miu’s head, setting her up as an avenging angel.

With what feels like several seconds of pause between each line of dialogue, Refn tunes us into the constant, synthesised ambience that fills the silences, thrumming and reverberating to the distorted rhythms crafted by Cliff Martinez and his team of composers. As is often the case with his and Refn’s collaborations, their work is a perfect formal match, soaking us in the ambience of electronic drones and vibrant neon lights that illuminate virtually every shady establishment in Copenhagen. These vivid fluorescent hues are often shaped through practical light sources built into Refn’s sets and making for some striking visual clashes, with Mother Hulda’s Chinese restaurant of red lanterns precisely arranged along green and blue curtains being a standout. As we come to understand Miu’s transcendent nature in more detail via a dream sequence as well, it almost appears as though these lights are radiantly pouring off her own skin and clothing, bathing her in an otherworldly glow colour against an entirely black background.

For a television series, this is loaded with these dead gorgeous colour compositions, laying out these red lanterns in the Chinese restaurant.
Psychedelic dream sequences are everywhere, here emitting light from Miu’s body as her origins are revealed.
Like every Refn film since Drive, this is soaked in his characteristic neon lighting – dogged commitment to an aesthetic.

Refn’s introduction to episode 5 also uses these vibrant contrasts to set up its gang war conceit particularly well, as he horizontally splits the screen and tracks his camera in opposite directions to examine both sides of the conflict – the blue half arranged in a tableau depicting the Last Supper, and the red posing on motorcycles. It is in those moments where rich displays of mise-en-scene and glacial camera movements combine that we feel fully immersed in his eerie environments, whether we are pointedly inching forward on character close-ups or floating around the golden apartment office of Miu’s old associate, Miroslav. Easily the most formally robust choice here though are Refn’s camera pans, frequently positioning us as distant, passive observers of Denmark’s urban underbelly.

A superb opening to episode 5 which focuses on a gang war, with the split screen, camera pans, and conflicting colour palettes.
Manipulating the golden light in Miroslav’s apartment office to throw these shapes across the ceiling. The use of darkness and lamps is particularly reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ photography in The Godfather.

The other major motif weaved through Copenhagen Cowboy’s scenes of animalistic greed and brutality are the pigs. Rosella’s passive husband, Sven, barely utters a word besides the bestial snorts and squeals he emits when beaten by her brother, Andre. It is revealed in episode 3 that Mr Chiang disposes of bodies by having them fed to Mother Hulda’s swine. In a simple yet deft cut, Refn moves from this scene to Nicklas playing with his own pet pigs, which we also met in the series’ very first scene. These men are the lowest of humanity propping themselves up as the greatest through their wealth and influence, though in such direct comparisons Refn exposes them as creatures of thoughtless instinct, constantly seeking to fulfil their most base desires.

Refn’s world is unforgiving and twisted, and his pig motif is part of that, emphasising the worst of humanity as thoughtless animals.
Refn stages tableaux with stillness and absolute attention to detail, leaving his camera as the only moving part of the scene.

Of these three men, it is Nicklas who is the most purely bone-chilling as an antagonist, possessing vampiric qualities that drive his bloodlust and make an enemy out of Miu. It is often in his house where Refn detaches from his neon aesthetic and turns to brighter, natural light, even offering a pastel, floral wallpaper backdrop to a Norman Bates-like monologue. He keeps a coffin in his basement too, and though one might initially presume that he sleeps in it, beneath its lid lie darker secrets which rear their head in Copenhagen Cowboy’s last two episodes.

The camera zoom and floral wallpaper in this shot frames Nicklas as an eerie figure.

The forest set piece where Nicklas’ surprise finally emerges to face Miu makes for a mesmerisingly surreal finale, shedding a dreamy natural light over a field of mysterious, tracksuited allies and her own terrified face, now showing emotion for the very first time. As Refn winds the ending towards a pair of cliff-hangers though, it is hard to not feel like we are being cheated of a final punch, leaving us wishing that this series was its own self-contained project. Still, as far as television goes, Copenhagen Cowboy is an exceptional cinematic triumph, traversing the psychological terrain of its otherworldly protagonist with disquieting stoicism and formal intensity. If Refn has another season of ideas in him to continue building out this hallucinatory Danish underworld, then let it be done. There’s nothing else on TV quite like it.

Even Refn’s natural light looks otherworldly, shedding a purple hue over this finale.

Copenhagen Cowboy is currently streaming on Netflix.