In 2019, Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn completed his masterwork, Too Old to Die Young. The Amazon miniseries felt like the apotheosis of everything Refn had been working toward: an extremely slow, neon-drenched, hyper-violent odyssey through the degradations of the modern world. The director employed the approach Paul Schrader defined as transcendental style—taking viewers “beyond normal sense experience”—across a sprawling 13 hours. It should have been a commercial and critical triumph, but Amazon opted to bury the series in the algorithm. To this day, even fans of his films have no idea that he made a miniseries.
Refn is now back in the streaming format with a Netflix series, Copenhagen Cowboy. It moves more quickly than his last miniseries, but is no less polarizing. “If you make something that people either love or hate,” he said to Interview magazine, “that is a reaction that is as truthful as you can possibly get.”
The things that some critics have singled out as flaws in Refn’s work—excessive violence, obsession with style over substance, slow pacing—are the qualities that appeal to his fans. Across his career, Refn has dedicated himself to building a cult audience willing to embrace his vision. To enjoy his work requires viewers to stop caring about things normally associated with good storytelling—narrative movement, detailed characters, a clear moral stance—and surrender to the spectacle of hyper-stylized images and gorgeous colors, ultra-brutality and chilly distance from the subject matter.
Refn’s outlook borders on nihilism without succumbing to it. Consider the character of Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) in the Pusher trilogy, set in Copenhagen’s criminal underworld. In the first Pusher, Tonny is the disloyal best friend of the film’s protagonist Frank (Kim Bodnia), whose betrayal launches a series of events that leads to Frank’s murder. Pusher 2 complicates our understanding of him. When it turns out that Tonny fathered a child born while he was in prison, he gradually becomes sickened by the degenerate lifestyle of his criminal family and friends, and wants more for his child. At the film’s cathartic climax, Tonny murders his brutal pig of a father and kidnaps his son from his drug-addicted ex-girlfriend. These aren’t acts of hatred, but of love and sacrifice. The film ends with Tonny cradling his baby on a bus.
Refn’s early work focused on the dilemmas faced by men, but his attention has more recently turned toward women, beginning with his 2016 film on the horrors of the modeling industry, The Neon Demon, and continuing in Too Old to Die Young. The latter depicts Southern California and northern Mexico as a dystopia where exploitation, vengeance, rape, and murder have become the norm. A society in freefall needs protectors. Refn finds them in Diana (Jena Malone), a New Age healer, and the drug cartel double agent Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo). Together, they murder traffickers and men who harm women.
Copenhagen Cowboy again takes up the motif of the female avenger. The heroine of the new miniseries is Miu (Angela Bundalovic), who possesses the supernatural ability to bring fortune or misfortune to those around her. We first see her working for a woman who runs a sex-trafficking operation with her loathsome brother. The woman wants to get pregnant despite being past menopause. Miu grants the wish—then changes her mind and makes her miscarry after realizing the moral squalor of the woman’s business.
Like former Refn heroes played by Ryan Gosling and Teller, Miu is stoical, taciturn, and fearless. Unlike them, the source of her strength is beyond our understanding. Her gender becomes impossible to decouple from the show’s narrative, as if Refn has become interested in the idea of femininity as a superpower. He refuses to reveal exactly what Miu’s power is. We know that she is some kind of a “good-luck charm,” but how does this power manifest?
It often seems like Miu’s black magic might just be the ability to use her words with utter precision—she remains silent, for the most part, but when she speaks it’s as if she can say the exact thing needed to bring about her enemy's downfall. So, Miu traverses the Copenhagen criminal underground, saving subjugated women and giving horrific beatdowns to drug dealers, a Chinese Triad boss, and a serial killer who is revealed to be an actual vampire and the heir to an ancient bloodline.
Has Refn become a “male feminist”? In some ways, yes, but not an ideological one. The reverence for the power of women expressed in his recent female-avenger figures comes from a much purer and more tender place than contemporary cultural politics. Pusher 2, with its portrayal of the transformative moral effect of fatherhood, was made after Refn himself became a father, and his more recent work in part conveys his sincere wonderment at and admiration for his wife and two daughters—one of the more charming and functional families in the history of arthouse cinema. It’s fitting, in this light, that Refn cast his older daughter, Lola Corfixen, to play the show’s mysterious and all-powerful vampire nemesis to Miu.
While Copenhagen Cowboy is as intriguing as anything Refn has made, it’s something of a formal regression. It lacks the transcendental style of Too Old to Die Young and instead mashes up various genres—vampire fiction, crime fiction, science fiction—almost in the way that video games do. This would make sense given Refn’s enthusiasm for games and his friendship with Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima—Refn is a character in Kojima’s 2019 game, Death Stranding, and Kojima appears in Copenhagen Cowboy. At its worst, Copenhagen Cowboy feels like self-parody, with excessive blinking neon lights, forced influxes of the supernatural, and postmodern genre blending. The show works best, oddly enough, in its feminist focus on Miu’s girl power.
Refn has skirted discussions of politics on most occasions, save for one notable instance. In 2018, he penned an essay about the state of America for The Guardian. Though at first Refn exhibited the standard European Gen-X response to Donald Trump—revulsion—his conclusions diverged from those of bien-pensant Hollywood types. “Even Trump’s fierce arrogance and distaste for his fellow man is good,” he wrote, because “it’s revealed how many people and politicians share such a view, and our exposure to such hypocrisy is healthy.”
Refn’s surprising claim reflects how he approaches his creative work. He depicts brutal, degenerate worlds not out of sheer sensationalism, but because he believes that in the midst of immense depravity lies the potential for love, forgiveness, and goodness. Copenhagen Cowboy, which is as surreal and violent as anything the director has ever made, beautifully draws out this contradiction. It shows us a world full of exploitation, human trafficking, murder, and flagrant disregard for human life. But it is also a world of brave women who come into their own against that landscape of degradation. Violence and tenderness aren’t always opposed.