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Nicholas Winding Refn is now, more than ever, obsessed with his own myth. Instead of lifting the veil, he’s doubled down and embraced his mythic instincts, and his approach to color and light are what guide him. It would be foolish to say these are foolhardy choices: if anything, he’s distilled his pool of fans into a deep, hyper-obsessed basin of love. Both ‘the Neon Demon’ and ‘Only God Forgives’ from the mid-2010s have both failed to gain much of the same audience as 2011’s ‘Drive,’ which is still widely considered to be Refn’s magnum opus– even within his own mind. His Amazon show, ‘To Old to Die Young,’ landed with a thud in 2019. It was not renewed for a second season.
In ‘Copenhagen Cowboy,’ he completes exactly what the title states. It’s a facsimile of a western, but lives far more in the style of late era David Lynch. In fact, it’s astounding how close Refn gets to the ever-elusive Lynchian quality, particularly in the way he directs action, which strongly evokes ‘Twin Peaks: The Return.’
Nicholas Winding Refn has enough comfort in his late age to take risks, something he was not always afforded. In the documentary ‘Gambler,’ which is only found on a ‘Pusher’ sequel box set, it depicts NWR’s failing marriage due to his poor finances, and the way in which his filmmaking nearly bankrupted his small Danish production company. With his success in completing the ‘Pusher’ trilogy, something he barely accomplished, he was able to gain enough traction to make the move alongside ‘Pusher’s’ Mads Mikkelsen into the United States, and history was made.
‘Copenhagen Cowboy’ brings NWR back to Copenhagen, and most of the story is in his native tongue, although there are parts in English, Mandarin, and other languages as well. The story revolves around a quiet protagonist, garbed similarly to the driver from ‘Drive,’ who is a self-proclaimed lucky charm, something between a spirit and a human.
In essence, this is NWR’s superhero entry, with all of the mysticism that comes with it, and none of the cynicism. His main character Miu is pure of heart, and her only goal is to help others. She rarely seeks her own comfort: she eats, sleeps, and has minimal needs. Her efforts are foremost to help the friends she encounters along the way. Much of her journey involves helping a woman, Mother Hulda, retrieve her daughter, Ai, from a greedy gangster.
Refn’s view of the underworld is as gloriously intact as ever before, and steeping in it is one of the great joys of watching his work. The television format only accentuates things implicit in his filmmaking. In fact, the length mitigates much of the focus on style that he seems to be more and more interested in, which makes for an enjoyable early watch, even while the later episodes occasionally strain credulity in their glacial plot movement. NWR is often criticized for being boring: his work is drawn out, but always has a sense of existential dread baked in. Particularly in the episode "Copenhagen", the moment of peak drama that carries some of the series’ most potent moments, life is beautiful yet dreary. Refn treats violence with a modern filmmaker’s eye, not precious yet always noticing the tragedy in death itself.
For a man whose filmography is so steeped in desolation, it’s always a wonder the way in which hope comes through, even in a show like ‘Copenhagen Cowboy’s’ final moments. ‘Copenhagen Cowboy’ is a bizarre labyrinth indeed, but what you capture along the way is intoxicating beyond belief, and lasts well beyond the six hours of watchtime.