Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest confoundingly flawed masterpiece.
In 1980, there was a strange, strange, strange TV show on BBC One called The Boy From Space. As a seven-year-old it transfixed and scared the living daylights out of me, telling the story as it did of a young alien boy who came to Earth. Dressed in only a blue space outfit, he spoke in a series of garbled machine-based murmurs.
Fast forward 43 years, and there’s something similarly strange, terrifying and transfixing going on in Nicolas Winding Refn’s six-part series for Netflix, Copenhagen Cowboy. The Drive and Only God Forgives director is one of the few true auteurs left and, like his obvious inspiration, David Lynch, he confounds and frustrates as much as he delights. That’s the thing about auteurs – they’re so determined and steadfast in their singular vision and visual style that sometimes it won’t be for everyone. And when you think that Winding Refn inhabits the same sort of space Lynch does, Copenhagen Cowboy will most definitely not be for everyone.
I came to this series thinking that it was going to be some sort of Killing Eve, female assassin-style show, with the obvious Winding Refn touches. How wrong I was. Halfway through I honestly thought that I wouldn’t – couldn’t – write a review of it because in many ways it doesn’t really count as a crime drama. Instead, we’re dealing with an androgynous central character whose past is a mystery and is quite obviously from realms not of this world, who uses powers that are quite obviously not from this world and wears a blue tracksuit. Instead of The Boy From Space, this could well be called The Girl From Space.
We’re introduced to Miu (Angela Bundalovic), a young woman who’s hired by a Serbian madam called Rosella (Dragana Milutinović). She runs a brutal brothel in Copenhagen with a stern hand, but is superstitious. Her Albanian half-brother André (Ramadan Huseini) is an equally brutal pimp/club owner. Rosella is convinced that Miu is some sort of good luck charm who will help her to become pregnant.
Miu looks on impassively and observes all around her. What she sees is a grotesque set of characters, a group of young women imprisoned in the basement and one of them – Cimona (Valentina Dejanovic) who she becomes friendly with – is murdered by a sadistic killer in a pig pen.
Everything is shot so stylishly it aches; the symbolism, rich colours and the fantastic, synth-heavy soundtrack by Peter Peter are all just so exquisite. But in terms of the story, we see humans constantly exploit other humans in any way they can, and you’re just waiting for Miu – dressed in her blue tracksuit – to kick off and do something about every injustice she encounters.
Is she an avenging angel? How did she come to help this horrid woman? What are her powers? Is she some sort of spirit, or are her powers the stuff of rumour and speculation? So many questions that aren’t really answered until the final episode, if they are even answered.
Once the Albanian gangsters are dealt with, Miu then ends up at a Chinese restaurant run by Mor Hulda (LiIi Zhang), who soon bears witness to Miu’s extraordinary, restorative powers. Miu, essentially on the run from her previous foes, wants to stay a while and Mor Hulda sees an opportunity – for Miu to help get her daughter back from local gangster Mr Chiang (Jason Hendil-Forssell) who holds her daughter hostage and uses the pigs in her back yard to, ahem, help dispose of the bodies of his adversaries.
(Yes, there are a lot of pigs in the show.)
And, once that storyline is done with, Miu moves on again, this time seeping into the world of Balkan drug lords.
Like the main character from the 1970s TV series, Kung Fu, Miu is a wandering soul with no fixed abode, and like the main character in Kung Fu she’s a lone shadow who attracts trouble wherever she goes (or perhaps chooses to go). Except these story arcs don’t end at the end of an episode. Whether Winding Refn is being wilfully obtuse here or not is up for debate, but he begins every new story arcs in the middle of episodes, just to throw us off even more.
At the end, you’re still not sure what is going on but one thing is for sure – Miu is not from this world. Or perhaps she was once but is now reincarnated as someone else or something else. As I said earlier, this is not your normal crime drama at all. We leave Miu with a new enemy – the sadistic killer Niklas (Andreas Lykke Jørgensen) who we saw kill Cimona earlier turns out to be a member of a truly strange, dark and perversely lustful family (we’re talking about full-on Oedipal stuff here) resurrects his dead sister Rakel (Lola Corfixen), who inhabits the same sort of powers as Miu but instead wears a red tracksuit.
If it sounds bonkers, you’d be correct in that assumption.
God only knows where it’s all. going, but it’s all so… beautiful. Winding Refn’s trademark neon is used everywhere to beguiling effect, some of the costumes and framing are gorgeous, while the entire cast looks as though they’ve just sashayed straight onto the set from a Vogue photoshoot. You understand it’s entirely ridiculous while watching it, but you can’t help but watch it. It’s just so fantastic to look at, and the way it’s shot draws you in and holds you there.
There are themes in play here – the role of unsuitable mothers, how humans exploit each other for whatever reason they can think of – but a lot of the time they’re repetitious, and there’s an unsubtleness about the characterisation and presentation of metaphor that only lends itself to cartoon-like pastiche. Despite a spellbinding, truly stunning ending, you’re left scratching your head and not taking it entirely seriously. You just wish there was some real meat on the bone here to go along with the visuals.
As a crime drama, it’s out there, for sure. As a fairytale-cum-supernatural-superhero-style drama, it just about works. Make of that what you will.
Copenhagen Cowboy is currently streaming on Netflix
One thought on “SERIES REVIEW: Copenhagen Cowboy”
Not of this world, yes, and beautiful sometimes, and fun.