Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Copenhagen Cowboy’ (2023) Is a Compelling and Seductive Experience Out of the Ordinary

Disclaimer: This article includes spoilers for ‘Copenhagen Cowboy.’ 

Four years after the release of Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn returns to streaming with Copenhagen Cowboy, his first work in his native Denmark since wrapping up the Pusher trilogy in 2005. A neo-noir leaning into elements of fairy tales, horror, and mythology, Copenhagen Cowboy is essentially a story about a cowboy of sorts arriving in a new town and steadily gaining more agency and self-reliance as she, in the pursuit of revenge, falls deeper into Copenhagen’s sleazy underworld. A nightmare mirroring reality, the series introduces paperless women stripped of agency and identity by men who prey on their dreams, mothers that sacrifice everything for their children, and men that sign up as soldiers in wars that are doomed before they even begin.

It all begins in a pig-shed, as a woman in black stiletto slingbacks is slowly dying by the gloved hands of a man. Barely managing to stand upright whilst the man’s firm grip on her neck tightens, the squeals of pigs drown out the little sounds managing to escape her. Not showing the face of either of them, it instead cuts to a dark road and an approaching car containing the story’s heroine. The allegedly magical Miu (Angela Bundalovic) arrives in the Danish capital, bought by Rosella (Dragana Milutinovic) in the hopes that she will help Rosella become pregnant despite being past her fertile peak. Soon, viewers and Miu alike will discover that Rosella is not just a desperate woman—who sells locks of Miu’s hair to equally desperate women—she is also cruel. In her basement, Rosella houses a group of captive young women, as her half-brother André (Ramadan Huseini) runs a brothel and sex trafficking business under the pretence of a modelling agency.

Rosella promises Miu economic compensation if she helps with her pregnancy, but as things unravel, Miu is instead forced to live with the captive women. After befriending one of the girls, Cimona (Valentina Dejanović), they hatch a plan to escape. Even though their alliance is brief, there is something beautifully intimate about it. The mutual protection and care transcend the screen because their circumstances are so bleak—there is some light in the darkness, even if only shining briefly. 

Miu (Angela Bundalovic) and Mor Hulda (Li Ii Zhang) standing in her restaurant. Miu has her back facing the camera, whilst Mor Hulda is seen standing slightly in front of Miu, facing her, and looking at her. Her hands are joined together at the her stomach.
Image courtesy of Netflix

However, Miu is on her own once it is revealed that Cimona is the woman dying in the pig-shed by the hands of her previous client Nicklas (Andreas Lykke Jørgensen). On her journey, she meets an array of allies and enemies, including Miroslav (Zlatko Burić), a lawyer with Copenhagen’s criminals as clients; restaurant owner Mor Hulda (Li Ii Zhang); and gang leader and casino owner Chiang (Jason Hendil-Forssell), who uses Mor Hulda’s Chinese restaurant as a body disposal site.

An evolution of Refn’s previously explored stoic male characters, including One-Eye (Valhalla Rising, 2009) and the Driver (Drive, 2011), the female-driven approach in Copenhagen Cowboy is strengthened by the fact that the series was co-developed with Sara Isabella Jønsson and written by Jønsson, Johanne Algren, and Mona Masri. The female perspective makes itself known especially within Miu, whose characterisation is elevated by her paradoxical traits of feminine and masculine. She is small yet strong; she is caring yet violent. Introduced as a lucky charm, Miu has magical powers that benefit whoever possesses her. In her presence, it seems that people either die or gain new life, as she carries the nurturing ability to heal and restore—a traditionally feminine trait that here is expressly presented as something simultaneously powerful and gentle. Mostly dressed in a tracksuit and sporting a bowl cut, Miu has a look that quickly sets her apart from everyone else. Androgynous with an almost childlike frame, people underestimate her, yet Miu herself knows that she is much more than her petite frame.

Copenhagen Cowboy will surely entertain already devoted fans of the Danish auteur as his signature trademarks are all present, including extensive tracking shots, 360-degree pans and static shots to prolonged silences, aesthetically pleasing neon, and an addictive synth score. The fully immersive score—featuring frequent collaborators Cliff Martinez, Peter Peter, Peter Kyed, and Julian Winding—is undeniably atmospheric, shifting from dreamy to nightmarish and sometimes intertwining the two in the same track. Whether it is the shimmers of hope in the melody of “I Promise,” the eerie sacredness conveyed through the pipe organ sounds in “Fire,” or the grimy and hypnotic “Motorbikes” where one can almost taste the residue left from armed confrontations, each track manages to carve out a space for itself.

Nicklas (Andreas Lykke Jørgensen) seen sitting on a couch in a medium close up shot. His facial expression is firm, one can see that he is clenching his jaw and focusing hard on something as his veins in his forehead are emphasised. His blonde hair is slicked back. He is wearing a red button-up shirt and a white blazer. He is facing and looking at something out of frame. Behind him and the couch is a wallpaper filled with flowers.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Naturally moving at a slower pace, Copenhagen Cowboy’s use of panning allows viewers to gain a sense of location within the conveyed environments and spaces. These shots emphasise that there is no emergency exit and nowhere to run or hide. A juxtaposition in itself, these slower pans contain a surprising amount of tension. For instance, staying longer within a violent scene heightens the impact—one is forced to witness the violence in its entirety and confront its aftermath—but manages not to glorify the brutality.

While some viewers might find the enthusiastic use of 360-degree pans repetitive, these longer sequences force viewers to be in the moment with the characters and observe their every move. Characters that so easily could have been without nuance—like Niklas, an affluent serial killer that preys on women and longs to suck blood like his male relatives—gain more depth due to these creative decisions. Vicious but compelling, seeing Nicklas without the relief of editing cuts creates tension in itself as the suspense of his lingering presence intensifies with each second. Even when he is not violent, he’s terrifying because viewers know what horrors lie beneath his pale skin and are thus only anxiously waiting for it to boil over. 

In Copenhagen Cowboy, not a single frame is accidental or wasted. The cinematography by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck is nothing short of stunning; whether it is gloriously choreographed martial arts scenes or characters simply smoking and pampering themselves, everything looks immaculate and meticulously framed. There is a thread of abstractness sewn through the series’ visual landscape, whether it is Miu wearing flower petals on her face during a dream sequence or condensing a gang fight down to weapons firing and the victims struck by bullets fading over each other. Moreover, the series plays with and uses lighting beyond the expected, from the subdued light of the red Chinese lanterns in Mor Hulda’s restaurant to a lit matchstick thrown as an act of revenge.

Miu seen in her dream sequence, standing in front of a wallpaper consisting of flowers in its design. She is wearing her blur tracksuit, her dark hair slicked back, yellow/golden eyeshadow on her lid with black smudged underneath her lower lashline. It's filled with glitter. On her face, various colourful flowers are attached. She is seen from her shoulders and up.
Image courtesy of Netflix

It is easy to complain that something like Copenhagen Cowboy is style over substance, but style is undeniably part of the substance. Instead of dulling the viewers’ perception altogether due to its audiovisual potency, the series successfully maintains its balance to create pure candy for all senses. Refn’s own colour blindness has always influenced his style, hence why his work is very contrasted yet visually captivating. Bathed in aesthetically appealing reds, blues, and purples in harmony with the accompanying pulsating synth score, the world of Copenhagen Cowboy is brutally uncompromising yet compellingly atmospheric and ethereal. 

Similarly, the costume design is impeccable, from lavishly detailed dresses to the slick tailoring of jackets to the evolution of Miu’s tracksuit as she progresses into her own person. In the beginning, Miu wears red, echoing the colours of her evil counterpart Rakel (Lola Corfixen). A mystical being with her own supernatural abilities, Rakel originates from Miu’s world and appears to be the only one capable of challenging her. However, as Miu gradually becomes her own person, her clothing changes. As she leaves red in favour of blue, it is as if Miu is distancing herself from Rakel. Miu’s new look—essentially her superhero costume—consists of a blue tracksuit with only a thin line of red and is a compelling visual that effectively puts her in contrast to her evil counterpart. 

Miu seen standing in her fighting position—one leg in front of the other as her fists are raised. She is wearing her blue tracksuit and a blue puffer vest over it. She is standing in a pig-shed. Behind her are pigs seen walking around. It's a barely lit place, filled with shadows. She is looking towards the camera, towards something—or rather someone—in that direction.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Whilst Miu’s clothing evolves throughout the episodes, another element of the series’ visual language proves to be both consistent and persistent. Since pig meat production has long been a vital source of income for the Danish economy and their swine population now exceeds their human population, the recurrence of pigs as a cohesive imagery and symbolism throughout Copenhagen Cowboy is thus very fitting. The recurring inclusion of the pig is mirrored in some characters’ journeys, appears in specific storylines—Nicklas’ family making their fortune through pigs and Chiang leaving the corpses of his enemies to Mor Hulda’s pigs—and is utilised in sound effects like squealing, sometimes derived from human men. 

Few times have the sentiment “men are pigs” been conveyed as literally as in Copenhagen Cowboy. While the likening of men to pigs is not particularly subtle, it does not make it any less potent. Pigs gorge on food, even if it is not theirs, and this is poignantly portrayed through Sven (Per Thiim Thim), Rosella’s husband who sexually abuses the women held captive in their basement. His brutality is nonchalant. Sven probably does not think of himself as particularly bad compared to other more flagrantly violent men. In Sven’s case, it is as if he cannot help himself. Since these girls are already in a terrible situation, he seems to think his infringements are nothing compared to the bigger ones. He takes advantage of the situation, probably telling himself that there is no reason why he should not, mirroring the supposed greedy and gluttonous nature of pigs. Replacing his human noises with the grunts, snorts, and squeals of pigs only further underlines this sentiment.  

Furthermore, characters in Copenhagen Cowboy are available for consumption, trade, and slaughter. Women are used and then disposed of when they no longer serve a purpose, while young men are recruited and appointed soldiers in gang wars that will undoubtedly end in slaughter; these characters all mirror the captivity of pigs. Miu herself is also a victim, where people mercilessly exploit her until they realise that they should have feared her instead. Others, who—at least, initially—might have chosen certain roads in life by themselves, are not free either. Even if in captivity, as long as pigs have enough to eat, they are relatively content. Mirroring this sentiment, as long as these men can stay afloat in the ever-changing gang environment, they might convince themselves that they are free, but only within reason and strict limitations.

Miu and Chiang (Jason Hendil-Forssell) seen standing in a forest. Chiang is bowing to Miu as he is holding her right hand in his and lightly kisses it. He is wearing all black. Miu is wearing her blue tracksuit. Her eyes are closed and her head is slightly tilted back as her left arm is behind her back. A bush with white roses is seen behind them.
Image courtesy of Netflix

To enjoy Copenhagen Cowboy is to meet the show on its unconventional terms. While the ending might not necessarily be the most fulfilling, it underlines that sometimes one does not need to have all the answers to appreciate something. People so often seek answers and closure, possibly because life itself is so avoidant of them. But in a creative landscape where many try to cater to the masses, there is something to be admired in the very existence of Copenhagen Cowboy. Viewers will either hate it or love it but never feel indifferent toward it—because if nothing else, at least people will feel strongly about it. If one decides not to let the fear of reception control one’s creativity, one will discover that there is so much freedom to experiment and explore beyond conformity. Unlike anything else currently streaming, Copenhagen Cowboy might ultimately prove to be a palate cleanser amongst Netflix’s offerings much like Miu herself is a breath of fresh air as the unconventional superhero the world needs.