Nicolas Winding Refn Series Is Haunting and Humorous

Jan 14, 2023

When trying to encapsulate the latest work from director Nicolas Winding Refn, Copenhagen Cowboy, it would be a grave mistake to give too much focus to its plot. This is because, up to a point, what is happening matters far less than the manner in which it is all playing out. One could describe how it follows a young woman named Miu (Angela Bundalovic) who is on a journey of revenge in the seedy underbelly of Copenhagen, where Refn himself is from, and it would sound like just another generic action thriller. The same could still be said for the director’s other recent series, Too Old to Die Young, which twisted the genre beats of a crime drama in ways that were equal parts macabre and mesmerizing.

While each is of similar quality due to Refn’s consistent visual and tonal command, they also remain distinct works that play more as companion pieces to the others that see him continuing to experiment. Even as Copenhagen Cowboy is frequently more restrained in its violence and gore, it is still a dynamic and disturbing experience that cares less about any expectations some may have for its structure as it does about submerging us in its borderline supernatural settings that dip its toes into the surreal before diving in. Like the scene of a car hurtling through the darkness of an isolated road, there is a beauty to the experience that we launch headlong into. This makes it a plunge into a peril that requires patience and willingness to give yourself over to the experience; even as it may not be for all tastes, it is still one absolutely worth opening your mind to.

Image via Netflix

RELATED: ‘Copenhagen Cowboy’ Trailer Invites You to Explore the Danish Underworld

All of this begins with pigs, a recurrent mud-dwelling motif in the series, united in their piercing squealing that serves as the punctuation for the murder by strangulation we are only given glimpses of. It fades into the background during the introduction of Miu prior to this killing when she is being ferried to a remote location, the first of several that feel more like hellish amalgamations of reality than anything, but it won’t be the last we hear of the screaming sows. Interpretations abound for what these animals are meant to represent; their cries are often merged with scenes of sex, violence, and sometimes both. This is, after all, a Refn production, and when has he ever been one to skimp on showing humanity’s penchant for depravity? There is less of it here, coming in short bursts of blood and brutality until one climactic fight that resembles more of a deadly dance, but there’s still plenty of muck to wade through. One could even read the series as being about Refn acting as an outside alien artist of sorts, looking upon the audience as identical to the sows gobbling up whatever new grotesque and violent kaleidoscopic vision he places in front of us.

He even appears in the show, saying nothing and merely watching the dark absurdity before him. This could easily be categorized with the dreaded descriptor of “pretentious,” but it maintains a persistent sense of humor that should put any such dismissals to bed. For any remaining ways that his detractors may label Refn as an auteur whose head is up his own ass and doing the same old shtick, the increasingly silly subversions that populate the story give it a necessary, refreshing gallows humor. When a hitman unexpectedly appears as everything is beginning to draw to a close and says, with a completely straight face, that he is more than just a killer but a “good listener, too,” the joke lands perfectly. It is all part of how Copenhagen Cowboy takes itself deathly seriously at bleak moments while also not too much so in others, a fun push and pull that is woven throughout everything. As we begin to discover that there is more to Miu than meets the eye in that she may actually command the power of both life and death, the gravity of it all is intermixed with an almost gregarious vulgarity. The fact that anyone could stumble upon the series from other Netflix offerings is hilarious on its own. The only similarity one could humorously stretch for is that Miu has a bowl cut that makes her resemble Will Byers from Stranger Things, though that is where any similarities end.

Image via Netflix

The presentation and the way it creates a more dreamlike pacing is Refn at his very best. There is a coldness to how he conducts much of the series, with the camera literally circling through various scenes and often just drifting away from its center. What could feel unfocused ends up discovering aspects of the story that might otherwise go overlooked, even as Refn still holds the characters at a distance. Rarely does he go in for close-ups, often letting conversations play out from afar. At the same time, as Miu travels through the various bleak and neon-colored worlds, there is a bittersweet quality to the story. Information about who she is and where she came from is doled out sparingly, though it is clear she is looking for a purpose of some kind that has otherwise been absent from her lonely existence.

Writers Sara Isabella Jønsson, Johanne Algren, and Mona Masri reveal her emotional state slowly, gradually inviting us to understand the broad strokes of who she wants to be even as she is uncertain of this herself. She has been labeled a good luck charm, though seems to keep having bad luck herself. Her attempt at starting a new life in the first couple of episodes falls apart almost as soon as it begins. And yet, even with her own misfortune, she forms caring connections with others who have been similarly downtrodden. Much of the driving force of this is an attempt to get a child back who has been kidnapped, but the resolution to this complicates whether this will really bring her the salvation she seeks. She is desperate to find this greater something, bringing fire and death down on the heads of those that have wronged her without hesitation in order to give her a chance at some sort of better life.

Capturing all of this is Bundalovic, who can say more with her eyes than almost any other performer could with pages and pages of dialogue. This is crucial as Miu is, to put it lightly, a character of few words. She spends most of the series either quietly observing or giving a steely stare at the swirling chaos around her. When she then leaps into action, she doesn’t throw out any sort of quippy one-liner. She just does, making short work of almost anyone who confronts her. Of course, this is hardly the first time that Refn has told a story that is centered around a silent protagonist. What makes it different is the poise that Bundalovic has. It provides a juxtaposition to every escalation and revelation to see her just silently absorbing it all. The detachment she seems to have from everything is by design as we come to understand that she is not like the rest of the troubled characters that populate this world. When we then get glimpses of fear in her eyes, be it at a new discovery about herself or the world around her, we feel every moment of it. The journey she goes on is almost a spiritual one, confronting the darkness that consumes the world of the city before frequently retreating back into the forest to put that all behind her. However, no matter how much distance she puts between herself and this darkness, Refn shows us that the serene safety she seeks is finite.

Image via Netflix

Though the director gained more mainstream attention for Bronson and Drive, each great films in their own right that were still largely straightforward, it is in this series where he continues his descent into emphasizing the evocative over fidelity to traditional narrative structure. This won’t be unfamiliar to those who have followed his work up until now, especially to anyone who appreciated his recent films Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon. If you wanted more of that type of visual experience with their shifting reflections on mortality in a longer form, then this is the series for you. For all the ways Copenhagen Cowboy is more inhibited, occasionally to its detriment — like in the final fight sequence that can feel too stagey, the discovery that is found when it breaks through makes it all worth it. Without going into any detail about what it arrives at, there seems to be a desire for more exploration of who Miu is when she herself has finally put the pieces of herself and her past together.

It all comes complete with a closing cameo that, while not a surprise for those who are aware of the other creatives that Refn has aligned himself with, is still a jarring one in how it provides one more silly note to end on. This final scene and the haunting one that preceded it opens a whole host of doors for the story to make its way through. Whether we get to go down these paths is regrettably an open question as the series is, to be frank, rather unlikely to find the broadest of audiences which is crucial in a ruthless streaming world ruled increasingly by metrics. Still, no matter what happens in the future, the mere presence of such a show is worth celebrating. Like an illusive dream that takes part in a deadly dance with more cosmic nightmares that keep creeping in, Refn’s Copenhagen Cowboy is a gem into which one can only stare and catch refractions of the world in all their sickening yet silly splendor.

Rating: A-

You can see all six episodes of Copenhagen Cowboy on Netflix starting January 5.

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