After his Prime Video debacle, Nicolas Winding Refn and Netflix look a match made in heaven

Copenhagen Cowboy
(Image credit: Netflix)

There are a handful of directors working today whose movies have a unique visual style, and Nicolas Winding Refn is certainly one of them. 

After a career making well-received thrillers in his native Denmark, Refn's first foray outside his native land was Bronson, the 2008 madcap drama that starred Tom Hardy as Britain's most notorious and violent criminal. Though the film was well-received, Refn didn't truly make a splash beyond his homeland until the release of Drive in 2012. 

Drive, in which Ryan Gosling's almost-mute stunt driver gets drawn into a criminal conspiracy, is a seminal piece of work. It's many people's favorite movie (this writer included), thanks to its glacial soundtrack, stylish cinematography, brilliant performances and gripping storytelling.

The movie was a box office smash, and gave Winding Refn a platform to do whatever he wanted – so, naturally, he went to Thailand and made Only God Forgives, a horribly violent arthouse film, in which Gosling's Julian sets out to avenge his dead brother and ends up cutting open his dead mother's stomach in a hotel room. 

Even for those of us who grew up watching the blood-spattered work of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, it pushed the gore to the limit. 

Refn then made the chilling The Neon Demon, about the horrors of Hollywood before, like so many directors in recent years, being tempted away to television. That move, for the first time in a career that hasn't always been lucrative, but has always attracted critical acclaim, proved to be a misstep. 

A still from the TV series Too Old To Die Young

Miles Teller in Too Old To Die Young (Image credit: Prime Video)

Primed for failure...

In 2019, the director released Too Old To Die Young, a 10-part mini-series starring Miles Teller. Financed by Prime Video, it followed Teller's Martin Jones, a corrupt police officer grieving for the death of his longtime partner on the force. In an attempt to make sense of what has happened, Jones turns to a vicious cartel for clues, and finds himself drawn into a world that includes brushes with Yakuza soldiers, cartel assassins and the Russian mafia.

While it stayed true to most of Winding Refn's traditions, with stark stillness in every shot, minimal dialogue and shocking violence, the story quickly lost momentum, and Prime Video executives were quick to confirm that it would be a case of one season and done.

In fact, such was the muted reaction to the show, which had its demise confirmed just a few weeks after it debuted, that there was speculation that Prime Video had deliberately kept it off its homepage, making it even more difficult to find an audience, though this was denied by a Prime Video spokesperson.

In the wake of that episode, and in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, Winding Refn returned to his native Denmark, and it was there that he found the inspiration for Copenhagen Cowboy, his new series and his first collaboration with Netflix.

The trailer debuted last night (September 4) – and you can color me excited.

The trailer feels like a greatest hits set from a band trying to build some goodwill with their fanbase after an awkwardly received album. It showcases everything Winding Refn is good at – daring cinematography, a pulsating electronic soundtrack, nightmarish visuals and plenty of intrigue – and has all the hallmarks of a return to form.

What is it actually about, though?

Plot details are currently under wraps – we'll know more when it premieres at Venice Film Festival on Friday (September 9) – but Winding Refn has told Variety that there's a fantastical element to Copenhagen Cowboy, which is "...along the lines of what Hans Christian Andersen would do, a fairy tale that reflects everything around."

The project, the idea for which Winding Refn conceived while confined to Denmark by lockdown, is a real family affair. His two daughters, Lola and Lizzielou, are among the stars, and his wife, Liv Corfixen, has executive-produced the series. 

The trailer harks back to the director's early days, to the dizzying pace of his Pusher trilogy, the Mads Mikkelsen-powered franchise about the vicious Copenhagen underworld. It also has that trademark Winding Refn feel, where you genuinely have no idea what the next scene will be. A door will open, and the character might sit down for a coffee or they might be transported straight to hell. 

What Netflix does best...

From the early talk around the show, and based on this trailer, Copenhagen Cowboy represents everything that's great about a platform like Netflix – a skilled director given the space, time, budget and freedom to deliver a project, with a fanbase eagerly awaiting it. 

Like David Fincher's Mindhunter or Cary Joji Fukunaga's Maniac, it may not hit Stranger Things-esque numbers, but it promises to be an enormously satisfying viewing experience, and is exactly the sort of project that should persuade new or returning subscribers to give Netflix a go. 

I can't wait for the first reviews to start landing, and I'll be marking my calendar when we get a release date. I don't know what to expect, but I'm very excited to find out – there are few directors around right now with that sort of pull, but Winding Refn is definitely one of them.

Tom Goodwyn
Freelance Entertainment Writer

Tom Goodwyn was formerly TechRadar's Senior Entertainment Editor. He's now a freelancer writing about TV shows, documentaries and movies across streaming services, theaters and beyond. Based in East London, he loves nothing more than spending all day in a movie theater, well, he did before he had two small children…