It’s hard to care about a show that doesn’t seem interested in all its best parts — and that means it’s even harder to care about Copenhagen Cowboy. The new Netflix series from Drive writer and director Nicolas Winding Refn has all his trademark stillness, his ultra violence, and his neon-drenched sets. It also has the most interesting world his work has ever included. It’s just a shame the show doesn’t show it off.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Copenhagen Cowboy season 1, but you should read it anyway, because this is really the only way you might finish this show.]
Let’s get the important part, which the show keeps hidden, out of the way first: Copenhagen Cowboy is about Miu, a lucky spirit who fights people and deals drugs — even if most of her time is just spent staring at the camera in long, nearly static close-ups. It’s also about a family of vampires and the (apparently paper-thin) veil between the supernatural denizens of another reality and the Danish criminal underworld.
In other words, this should be one of the most exciting shows ever. Instead, Refn seems embarrassed by the eccentricities and fantasy of his own world. The first two episodes of the show barely even offer a hint at the world it’s set in, letting strangeness do the work that magic could have. Miu spends the first episode trapped in a Danish brothel that’s seemingly in the middle of nowhere, before escaping in the second down a dirt road that leads to a similarly isolated Chinese restaurant.
Moments like these, or when Miu seems to save a stillborn baby by breathing life into it, are when Copenhagen Cowboy feels like it’s on the verge of being something, anything, more interesting than its dour pilot. But, the eternally obstinate Refn steers clear of the fae his series seems primed to reach out to, preferring to keep mentions of blood-drinking and psychic powers at the periphery of a story that mostly centers on low-level crime with no magical powers in sight.
This proximity to something truly special isn’t just limited to Refn’s story (which he co-wrote with Sara Isabella Jønsson Vedde) either. Refn has always been an incredible composer of images, singularly devoted to his own specific aesthetic, and that’s no less true in Copenhagen Cowboy. But with every big visual swing from Refn comes the potential for a big miss.
When he’s at his best, Refn can turn sparse concrete rooms and blank walls into striking backdrops for his characters as claustrophobic close-ups stay trained on their unmoving faces, letting the actors’ tiniest twitches play out their emotions more clearly than words might. Rather than traditional shot/reverse shot dialogue, Refn spends most of Copenhagen Cowboy panning the camera in a circle, picking up a complex combination of staging and dialogue between characters who may spend half of their spoken lines off screen as the camera rotates away from them. And, of course, neon lights drench every room so completely that it seems to eerily drip off the actors’ skin.
But Refn misses about as often as he hits in Copenhagen Cowboy — even if a few of those hits are home runs. One particularly jarring example comes as Miu enters a trance-like state, somewhere between a spirit world adjacent to ours and the grimy Danish warehouse she’s meeting a crime boss in. During the scene, Miu dances while neon lights shine around and past her, elongating themselves and her limbs into refracted light. It’s the kind of moment that should look like magic. But it doesn’t work. Instead it looks like Refn lost a bet with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and was forced to re-create the streaming service’s intro somewhere in his series. The lights look cartoonishly faded and unnatural, and, rather than something transcendent, the scene’s spell breaks, immediately turning it into an embarrassing misfire that lays bare some of Refn’s least effective pretensions.
But all of this only makes the show’s true highlights more frustrating. Buried inside the nearly six hours of stillness, quietness, and occasionally goofy images is a tremendously cool show about Netherworld creatures haunting the streets and forest of Denmark, carving paths for themselves out of the seediest parts of the world. Refn seems to want to say that if these underworlds are already primed to take in and exploit the gifts of outcasts from the human world, why should they scoff at the outcasts of the supernatural world? Everyone’s got something to offer, so why should a spirit in a blue tracksuit be any different?
But the task of digging that excellent premise out of the show too often feels Herculean. In sharp contrast to Refn’s previous series, Too Old to Die Young — which suffered from similar problems but often threw itself into bursts of passion where actors were allowed to go long on unhinged, explicative monologues about things like how the world might end — Copenhagen Cowboy’s dialogue is frustratingly turgid and stuck in the moment-to-moment machinations of its plot.
When the series finally does let loose, mostly in this season’s final episode as spirits converge and the vampire hunting them emerges, it becomes even more difficult not to mourn all that wasted time and all the hours this show spent not being even half this interesting.
None of this is to say that Refn shouldn’t have all the static shots and striking images he wants, but when there’s not any clear point or meaning behind those images, they start to grate over the course of a six-hour season. This is even more true when the alternative was the gorgeous Danish monster series he created but seems tragically bored by.
Six episodes of Copenhagen Cowboy are now streaming on Netflix.