Will Sorg – Movies Guy
Danish Filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is a provocateur. Refn, who has recently started being referred to in his work as NWR, is well known for his harsh stylistic tendencies. He has made slow-paced, ultraviolet, neon-colored, nihilistic films his trademark. It seems that with each new project he works on, he tries to push the boundaries of what can be seen as acceptable for film in the sense of both content and technique. Even NWR’s most well-known film, Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, has sparse dialogue, an unconventional narrative structure, and incredibly brutal violence.
In 2019 NWR shifted from films to television with his Amazon Prime Video mini-series Too Old to Die Young. It is a 12-hour show about a dirty cop working as a hitman in Los Angeles and a cartel boss who is trying to get revenge on the cop for killing his mother. It is one of the slowest, weirdest, uncompromising TV shows I have ever seen. It breaks all of the conventions of television, swings for the most uncomfortable content possible, and it does not even really have an ending. In early 2023 Copenhagen Cowboy was released on Netflix and it is NWR’s most inscrutable work yet.
On paper, it seems rather simple. A six-part series follows a remarkable young woman named Miu as she makes her way through the criminal underworld of Copenhagen. It starts with Miu as a victim of human trafficking as an Albanian mobster believes Miu has magical powers that can allow his middle-aged sister to conceive a child. As the show goes on, she falls in with Chinese gangsters and other threats as she attempts to help some of the more likable characters. What complicates this setup is Nicolas Winding Refn. He’s done crime dramas more than any other genre and it is clear that he is far more interested in experimenting than sticking with the conventions of the genre. Miu is genuinely magic, she has powers even if it is never fully explained what they actually do, actually, very few things are explicitly explained, and if they are it is wedged between the immense amount of runtime that is spent building the mood of the show.
This show, like a lot of NWR’s works, is all style and no substance. The style is the substance. The neon-colored lighting that bathes the whole show in blues, purples, and reds is a hallmark of him for a reason. The show’s cinematography is also completely for show. There are at least two 365-degree panning shots in each episode, a shot that consistently slows down the show due to its required slow speed to be pulled off smoothly but it looks amazing and that is the whole point. The whole show is like those panning shots. In each episode, there is only enough plot to fill 20 minutes of story but instead, we are given gorgeous cinematography that takes us through the scenery and builds a feeling more than it tells a story.
When style becomes substance, anything can be done with television. Rather than show a gang war, it can be abstracted into closeups of weapons firing and silhouettes falling to the ground in a hazy, abstract montage. When style becomes substance, even the funniest ideas can be played straight. This is a show that has vampires and aliens involved in its plot and the main character is a nearly mute, tiny woman with a bowl cut and a blue tracksuit. She knows martial arts and could probably kill almost any other character in the show. These are all positively ridiculous ideas and yet they are played with a level of seriousness that is rarely seen in even the most dramatic of TV shows.
It is genuinely difficult to say if you can define Copenhagen Cowboy as anything other than an unmitigated vision. I’ve seen every episode and I cannot fully tell you what it is actually about. I think the only person who has any idea what the show even is, is NWR. It is purposefully frustrating, undeniably unaccessible, and the kind of show only a handful of insane people could genuinely enjoy. I enjoyed it by the way.