Copenhagen Cowboy, the latest work from Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, is an intoxicating mixture of folklore and new digital media. By Patrick Marlborough.

Copenhagen Cowboy

The character Miu, played by Angela Bundalovic, in Copenhagen Cowboy.
The character Miu, played by Angela Bundalovic, in Copenhagen Cowboy.
Credit: Magnus Nordenhof Jønck

Nothing is cool anymore. Somewhere in the 2010s, we let cool die as we slogged our way towards peak television, peak streaming, peak content. Cool is an oddity and an indulgence and there’s no room for either at the peak. Media is now churned out like fast fashion – what doesn’t fly off the rack is left to rot in a landfill of failures.

Where does that leave cool, which by its very nature is undefinable and comes to us steady, singularly and slowly? Where does it leave its native speakers, who now communicate in what is essentially a dead language to crowds that no longer parse it? Where does that leave the freaks? Where does that leave Nicolas Winding Refn? Somehow, impossibly, the answer is Netflix.

Danish auteur Refn (Drive, Bronson, Only God Forgives and the Pusher trilogy) codified a particular mode of cool in his work. Brash cinematography, frantic hyperviolence, balletic slowmo and, yes, the bold reds and blues of his fetishistic neon lighting – love him or hate him, Refn has always possessed a style that makes his art pop. Copenhagen Cowboy, his second television series after Amazon’s Too Old to Die Young, finds Refn’s singular vision sparkling like a satin driving jacket in a closet of Uniqlo work shirts.

The six-episode neo-noir-gangster flick cum Nordic fairytale cum martial arts brawler isn’t really like anything else going. It follows Miu (Angela Bundalovic), who looks like a young Agnès Varda styled by Wes Anderson. She navigates the murky underworld of Copenhagen, replete with human traffickers, migraine-suffering martial artist mafiosos, pig-men and maybe – probably – vampires.

Miu is a “lucky coin”: a witch of sorts, a living, breathing folktale who can take or make your luck with a look. She is a typical Refn protagonist: borderline mute, doggedly mysterious, endlessly deadly. And yet, unlike the elegantly nihilistic voids of other Refn heroes such as Driver (Drive) or One-Eye (Valhalla Rising), Miu radiates humanity. She is, in Refn’s own words, a superhero for the modern era.

Copenhagen Cowboy feels like Refn grasping a maturity that his detractors often criticise him for lacking. His perceived shallowness has always had an often unrecognised intention behind it, and in Copenhagen Cowboy it operates not unlike a backstage mirror at a strip club, asking us to consider the line between reality, imagination and performance.

The show was the result of Refn finding himself stranded in Denmark by the pandemic, where he and his family lived at his mother’s in the countryside. He’s been made to slow down for a second, sit with his family and collaborate with a people, style and language that he hasn’t really touched since Hollywood gobbled him up after Drive’s release in 2011.

Copenhagen Cowboy feels so sure of itself that it’s intoxicating. Most streaming content, Netflix’s especially, makes you feel as if you are participating in a focus group to determine the worth of its existence, the sword of algorithmic oblivion forever dangling over its head. Refn seems largely indifferent to this – or at least confident in his ability to stand out in an overcrowded market – because he knows what’s cool, knows he’s cool and knows cool sells.

Copenhagen Cowboy glides along like a neon glacier. Its pacing is slow only if you can’t shake the impatience of everything else out there right now. It is conscious of, and hypervigilant about, its role and nature within a cacophony of constant distractions. Conversations in Copenhagen Cowboy can feel as if they’re waiting for the viewer/player to select a dialogue option, as the camera pans from side to side like a doped-up drug lord assessing both sides of a conversation. We sit in rooms, stand in forests and take in the dread just like Miu, with a detachment that seems like indifference right up until the visceral and heroic (yep!) action snaps you out of it. It’s as cathartic as it is meditative.

Refn is leaning into the description of himself as a “modern Hans Christian Andersen”. There is this tension between the archaic and modern that thrums like a crossbow when let go. It’s engrossing to see this director, who has always been synonymous with a certain notion of the new, snuffling around in the old. It feels like a turning point for his work, his audience and for how we think of a platform such as Netflix.

Refn has discussed his fascination with new media, namely the phone screen – where he claims to watch all his movies for the first time – and the hyperactive way in which art/content is consumed now. “It’s almost like streaming has become old news,” he recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was revolutionary five years ago but there’s already new formats taking over. The digital screen is the final destination for everything nowadays.”

You can see him reckoning with that thought in Copenhagen Cowboy, where various eras of Refn converge: the gritty vérité brat, the paranoid observer, the hyperstylised cool kid and the middle-aged father (one of Refn’s teenage daughters stars in the show). He grapples with the fact that cinema, a religion for Refn, is now a dinosaur, and how the wrangling of new forms and platforms might hold the key to jolting it out of extinction.

Games have clearly influenced Refn’s approach to Copenhagen Cowboy – and not only because video game auteur Hideo Kojima appears in a cameo. “The most innovative components of creativity at the moment are in gaming,” he says in that same Hollywood Reporter interview. In Copenhagen Cowboy, you can see how gaming has encouraged Refn to conflate time, space and narrative, and emboldened him to ask for more from his audience. The show moves between meticulously curated levels as Miu drifts from tacky gangster mansion to upscale Chinese restaurant to vampyric estate: themed worlds with their own sets of puzzles, mini-bosses and dungeons. Miu looks like a gaming mascot ripped straight from some early 2000s PlayStation box art, and she leaves you feeling that there’s always some new skill or power-up to be unlocked in the next scene.

Where the influence of gaming is really noticeable is in long, slow stretches where the audience is left enough space to partake in acts of interpretation that threaten to tip over into interaction. It feels as if the show is asking you: well, what should Miu do next? Press X to glower, press Y to knee this goon in the head, press B to succumb to the existential terror of it all?

Through hyperreality, neon and mixed martial arts, Refn drags streaming television, cinema, gaming, anime and more into a kind of primordial soup of folkloric essentials. Copenhagen Cowboy is a true oddity at a time when these qualities are unwelcome on the increasingly anxious major streaming services. Refn does this as that most singular of contradictions: a true geek who is undeniably, giddily, anachronistically, cool.

Copenhagen Cowboy is streaming on Netflix.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 11, 2023 as "Nerd of the cool".

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