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Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon-Noir Netflix Series  

Whatever you’re expecting to see from a Nicolas Winding Refn TV series for Netflix, Copenhagen Cowboy probably has it.

All his usual hallmarks are present and accounted for: the saturated neon lighting and the Cliff Martinez score; the strong, silent protagonist and the seedy criminal underworld; the fetish for violence that verges on (and occasionally tips over into) sexual; the dreamy pacing that captures a vibe better than it tells a story. There’s an underground fight club, because of course there is, and a sex trafficking ring, because of course there is, and touches of the supernatural, because why not.

Copenhagen Cowboy

The Bottom Line

NWR at his NWR-iest.

Airdate: Thursday, Jan. 5 (Netflix)
Cast: Angela Bundalovic, Li Li Zhang, Jason Hendril-Forssell, Andreas Lykke Jørgensen, Lola Corfixen, Zlatko Buric
Creator: Nicolas Winding Refn

It is, in short, Refn at his most indulgently Refn-y. Which would seem like good news if you’re a fan, as I am; this is as sumptuous a work as he’s ever delivered, and one allowed to take up the sprawl of a TV series. Yet it’s also one that leaves behind the gnawing sense that Refn has perfected his style perhaps too well. In Copenhagen Cowboy, at least, it’s not clear there’s anywhere new to take it.

So it’s back to the criminal underworld we go, this time as experienced through Miu (Angela Bundalovic), whose vaguely defined ability to bring “luck” makes her a hot commodity to some and a terrifying threat to others. Copenhagen Cowboy‘s narrative (written by Refn, Sara Isabella Jønsson Vedde, Johanne Algren, Mona Masri, and directed entirely by Refn) lends itself naturally to TV’s segmented structure. Over six hourlong episodes, Miu drifts from a brothel run by an Albanian gangster to a restaurant serving as a front for the Chinese mob; encounters hitmen and drug dealers and a family of sadists; and exacts revenge on those who’ve harmed people she cares about while searching for answers about her own origins.

Aloof Miu’s spiritual resemblance to other Refn characters is obvious, and not coincidental. The filmmaker himself has described her as the “female evolution” of the angel-of-vengeance character played by Ryan Gosling in Drive, Vithaya Pansringharm in Only God Forgives and Mads Mikkelsen in Valhalla Rising. Bundalovic wears the mantle capably, imbuing Miu’s stillness with an almost otherworldly confidence. But what really sets Miu apart is her appearance — a small frame clad in a tracksuit and topped by a bowl cut. In a universe populated by stereotypically feminine women (defined by their sexuality, their maternity or occasionally, Oedipally, both) and stereotypically masculine men (brutish or bloodthirsty, driven by their power over others or lack thereof), Miu’s androgynous, almost childlike frame stands as a stark anomaly.

With her odd gifts, mysterious past and unchanging outfit, Miu becomes a sort of arthouse superhero. But the project feels less like an intricately plotted Marvel blockbuster than some half-forgotten fairy tale. Its universe and the rules that guide it are painted in broad, dream-logic strokes, while its metaphors are sometimes made luridly, explicitly literal. We never get around to an explanation for where Miu’s abilities come from, or what precisely she’s capable of — or, for that matter, if she’s serious when she describes herself as an alien. But we do get a rapist who isn’t just piglike but given squeals and snorts in lieu of human dialogue, and vampiric elites brought to life by the consumption of human flesh.

To enjoy Copenhagen Cowboy is to meet the show on its own mystical terms, without demanding straightforward answers or conventional thrills. Entire minutes slip by as a the camera regards a panel of wallpaper, or does a slow 360-degree pan around a room, or lingers on a composition long enough that a viewer can’t help but admire the heavy-handed symbolism contained within it. When it works, which it mostly does, it’s mesmerizing — a testament to the visceral power of imagery over narrative. When it doesn’t, it can be maddening. Near the very end of the finale is a scene that wildly miscalculates how much patience an audience might have for spinning around a forest when there’s only a few minutes left of the season to wrap things up.

In the end, it doesn’t actually do much wrapping up at all — the way the story leaves off, it’s clear these six chapters have been planned as part of a multi-season arc, should the Netflix gods be feeling generous. But I don’t think the open-endedness accounts entirely for the slight disappointment that season one leaves in its wake. Moment to moment, Copenhagen Cowboy offers plenty of pleasures: the cool of its taciturn hero, the romance of a brokenhearted gangster figure, the wicked thrill of impending violence, the beauty of one particularly vivid shade of cobalt. Added together, though, they amount to a greatest-hits compilation of Refn’s earlier works, rather than a singular statement in its own right. It may be time for its creator to borrow a page from his protagonist, and venture outside his comfort zone in pursuit of newer, deeper experiences.

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