With his latest project Copenhagen Cowboy, it would seem that film-maker Nicolas Winding Refn – going by NWR more and more as of late, for ease of consistent and concise branding – faces a pivotal juncture on multiple fronts.
Back in his native Denmark for the first time since 2005, working under the constraints of Covid, settling into a streaming miniseries period that’s taken him from Amazon to Netflix, and having recently turned 50 years old, he has reached the point at which most artists might conduct a personal inventory and evolve in some meaningful way as a consequence of it. The generous read of his career’s flattened arc posits that having not done this is a testament to the clarity and force of his polarizing yet inarguably singular vision. With unflagging confidence in his style and pet themes, he’s muscled through every reason to change and held fast to his Serbian gangsters, Thai martial artists, terse avenging angels, POV insert shots of hands and abandoned rave lighting schemes of lurid neon-charged color.
The less charitable take would counter that Refn’s locked-in set of strengths and weaknesses doesn’t agree with the sprawling run time of six hours, which serves only to put more space between the flashes of frighteningly intense beauty that have placed him in the ranks of A-league arthouse auteurs. At feature length (as in his 2011 masterpiece Drive), he can punctuate the long stretches of silent formalist glowering with jags of sadistic violence or arresting compositions at intervals frequent enough to hold an audience. But when untethered by any demands for concision, he gives in to his tendency toward turgidity, drawing out each installment with endless interludes of 360-degree camera panning across a cast of wordless stoics. However diminishing Refn’s returns may be, they’re littered with too many spellbinding moments to discount him completely; even and especially because of this personal stagnation, he’s become a slipperier quantity to pin down, his lingering talents at odds with his lack of interest in pushing them. He’s the same rascal, the growth instead taking place in an audience conflicted about whether he’s still worth the patience.
Refn’s active disdain for the rhythms of serial television comes across in the loose string of actions that could be liberally defined as a plot, engrossing on paper and near-interminable in practice. Clad in an androgynous Finn Wolfhard haircut and a blue tracksuit she wears like Superman’s Spandex, our hero is Miu (Angela Bundalovic, ably playing the slate-faced cipher), a “living lucky charm” with supernatural properties making her a valuable quantity to Denmark’s criminal underground. She’s passed as chattel from one sinister creep to the next, from a gangster matriarch hoping to get pregnant to another one of the black-market pornographers Refn’s so fond of to a family of Aryan psychopaths that may also have some vampiric DNA in the mix. Incredibly, little of this plays as interesting on screen, the pulpy subject matter sterilized by a glacial dourness that treats paperback thrills as a momentous clash between ancient good and evil.
The notion that there’s an elemental foundation to Miu’s parade of beatings – a parallel track on the astral plane to her retributive warpath on Earth – gains a canny visual representation only in the final episode, during a fight that pairs each blow with a warped chop-socky sound effect bridging the gap between our dimension and the nonreal. Refn delivers something we’ve never seen before only after spending hours on more of the same, a slog leavened by scant enjoyments: Cliff Martinez’s pulsating synthpop score, exactly one dose of levity in the form of a calamitously incompetent coke deal attended by Refn himself in a cheeky cameo, some devious visual equivalencies between humans and pigs. (Though that last one is somewhat more difficult to appreciate once a person has read up about the on-set incident in which one porcine actor was intentionally shot and killed.)
Refn has gone on record that the title has nothing to do with the content of the show, confessing that the phrase Copenhagen Cowboy came to him before he started writing, and adding that “I just like the two words together”. His creative logic really doesn’t get much more complex than that, the simple pursuit of whichever signifier in an increasingly warmed-over sensibility of cool happens to tickle his fancy. With the backing of those famously permissive streamer executives, he could very well spend the rest of his days pointing purple lights at chiseled torsos emblazoned with tough-guy tattoos, occasionally stumbling into a blink of transcendence. But he’s also hinted at a homecoming to the cinema as his next move, a welcome influence on his focus in its forced concision. Like the unstoppable Miu, his unwieldy and unpredictable powers are most reliably activated under duress.