‘Copenhagen Cowboy’ Is More of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Self-Indulgence 

The “auteur theory” has recently been transformed by the arthouse crowd into cult adoration of directors known more for their visual polish than stories. Danish enfant terrible Nicolas Winding Refn has developed such a distinct, neon visual style that whether or not he can tell a solid narrative is now of minor importance to his fans.  His only mainstream hit remains 2011’s “Drive,” a tight crime thriller still best known for its look and soundtrack. Depending on where you stand regarding Refn as a director, his recent jump into streaming is either a blessing or avoidable slog. His six-part limited series for Netflix, “Copenhagen Cowboy,” is a showcase of everything admirers and detractors love and hate about the filmmaker. It’s visually rich, sometimes hypnotic, yet also numbingly meandering. 

The series marks Refn’s first production in Danish in nearly 18 years. But as with most of his work, he focuses on one character from which everything else flows. Here it’s Miu (Angela Bundalovic), a young woman who has fallen into the hands of human traffickers. For a while she’s protected by an Albanian patriarch who believes in Miu’s rather vague powers to give people “good luck.” The older woman wants to get pregnant and is convinced it will happen as long as Miu is around as she gives it another go with her sloppy, fellow trafficker husband. The other girls forced into sex work take a liking to Miu, but conditions are of course hellish and one of them hints that she wants to escape. Eventually they both do flee, but Miu is soon pulled back into the Copenhagen underworld of gangsters of all backgrounds and shady businesses used as fronts for violent criminal plans.

Describing the rest of the plot in “Copenhagen Cowboy” is akin to describing color schemes and sonic landscapes. In other words, Refn followers can expect nothing but familiarity. It was the same with the director’s 2019 “Too Old to Die Young” for Amazon, which was more of a chore to endure considering nearly all of its episodes were feature length. “Copenhagen Cowboy” verges from an hour to 46 minutes. Still, for the non-fan it will be a test of willpower. Aesthetically it recycles everything Refn is known for. The red and blacks of “Only God Forgives,” including its fetish for Asian gangster aesthetic, combines with the glossy distortion of pretty faces from “The Neon Demon.” Tough guy mobsters from “Bronson” and “Drive” lounge around, beating each other up in underground fight clubs Miu seems to float through. Refn’s work always stimulating to stare at and if you were to turn the sound off Cliff Martinez’s electronic drones, it could work as a moving photo album. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck can be proud of his work here and should at least catch the eye of more major directors. 

But what exactly is the story? You have to dig for it through the very slow pace, where Refn tends to let his camera spin around endlessly in a room until it rests on someone stylishly standing or sitting on a chair. If it were to be somewhat defined, you could say the core is Miu’s journey as a kind of semi-superhero imbued with a mysterious, unnamed power. She travels through a Copenhagen netherworld of crime and sex trafficking, making new momentary allies in either fellow prisoners or crime bosses, like the head of a Chinese restaurant that is a front for coke traffickers. Refn splashes around his habit of playing with surreal elements that seem to come out of nowhere. For example, he seems to be commenting on the brutish ways of criminals by giving them pig squeals when they get beaten down. Miu will also cross paths with a vampire, while still being embroiled in a war between rival gangs. 

This would all be even more engaging if Refn attempted to do more with Miu as a character. Angela Bundalovic has a presence that is never allowed to grow. This is because her performance is kept at one single note for the entire series. She’s always quiet, standing still and simply staring, while the rest of the narrative’s events seem to swirl around her. It’s another Refn recycle, although in films like “Drive” or his underrated Viking adventure, “Valhalla Rising,” Ryan Gosling and Mads Mikkelsen eventually changed course in their aims and lives. Near the end of the series, Miu develops as secrets are revealed and final showdowns take place, but not by much. With “Copenhagen Cowboy,” it can feel like Refn is reaching that stage where he simply likes the idea of thinking up images to shoot, without wanting to truly construct layered scenarios. He even reportedly chose the title out of liking how the words sound. Indeed, there are now cowboys to be found.

None of this will of course come as a surprise to those who worship Refn. He even throws in the bonus of having his wife and producer, Liv Corfixen and daughter Lola Corfixen appear in small roles. Like Lars Von Trier or Gaspar Noe, this is a filmmaker who has carved out his own specific corner, with a voice that is undoubtedly unique. “Copenhagen Cowboy” can be streamed at home or screened in some art gallery on a loop. You may not be able to sit through all six hours without becoming restless while grudgingly admitting it’s kind of bold for Netflix to even fund this, knowing it will disappear into its catalog. But this is a director still capable of much more if he can stop being so attached to making alluring images for their own sake. His earlier films, like “Drive,” had focus and clarity. If he were to apply that to a whole series, with the visual exuberance of this one, then it would be something truly worthy of binging, for his fanbase and those outside of it.

Copenhagen Cowboy” begins streaming Jan. 5 on Netflix.