By James Slaymaker.
A glacially paced revenge-thriller which deliberately denies the audience any sense of tension, excitement or catharsis.”
It’s remarkable to think that a scant decade ago, Nicolas Winding Refn was tipped to be the next major player in international art cinema. The rapturous reception of Drive (2011) represented one of the most phenomenal cinematic success stories of the 2010s – a film which seemed to charm critics and audiences in equal measure, winning the Best Director prize at Cannes before earning over 5 times its budget in wide release and making waves in the awards circuit. Refn seemed to be the rare cinematic voice capable of making the leap from arthouse circles to the mainstream without diluting his distinctive artistic voice. Having catapulted himself from underground cult auteur to the forefront of popular film culture overnight, critics tripped over themselves to heap superlatives on Refn; he was declared an unstoppable force, a visionary, a once-in-a-generation talent with the power to bring uncompromising, auteur-driven filmmaking to multiplexes.
And then, just as quickly as he’d been crowned the saviour of cinema, Refn seemed to squander all his critical goodwill in one foul swoop with Only God Forgives. As a formal exercise, Drive functioned by taking the broad structural outline of an 80s American crime thriller and visualising its clichés with an unprecedented sense of solemnity and intensity of purpose: the performances are intentionally stilted and stripped-down; dialogue is dialled down so that each line seems to be infused with mythic weight; scenes are composed in meticulously organised tableaux with minimal character movement. With Only God Forgives, Refn doubled down on the aesthetic eccentricities of Drive. The performances in the earlier film are minimalistic, but are still rooted in recognisable character psychology; in Only God Forgives, the performers act as blank mannequins. Drive is certainly paced more slowly than the average action film, but moves as a rapid pace in comparison to Only God Forgives, which regularly cuts to unmotivated glacial tracking shots and drawn-out close-ups of its affectless characters. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a withdrawn protagonist who retains a level of mystique, but he still essentially fulfils all the actions expected of a conventionally masculine action hero (sure, he sometimes appears sadistic when inflicting violence on mob henchmen, but he is fundamentally motivated by a protective instinct towards Irene and her young son, and the film ends with his heroic act of self-sacrifice). Only God Forgives’ Julian (Ryan Gosling), on the other hand, is a maddeningly passive protagonist. A spectator of his own story, Julian is not a driving force in narrative events and does not even react in an engaging way to the events unfolding around him. Indeed, in the one scene which sees Julian engage in hand-to-hand combat, he proves tragically ineffectual, being beaten to a pulp by the film’s ostensible antagonist Lieutenant Chang before landing a single punch.
Only God Forgives was booed during its premiere at the same festival which had bestowed Refn with the Best Director prize just two years previously, was treated with disdain by the same critics who once sung its filmmaker’s praises, and made barely a dent in the international box office despite the star power of Gosling, who was at the height of his fame upon its release. The consensus was that Refn had already slipped into self-parody; the style which seemed so fresh and unique in Drive had instantly grown stale, with the hermetic formal composition and steadfast refusal to offer the audience any kind of recognisable emotional anchor rendering Only God Forgives an interminable slog.
Yet Refn, seemingly unperturbed by the overwhelmingly negative response to the film, continued along the aesthetic path he established with Only God Forgives; first with The Neon Demon (2016), an intentionally alienating riff on giallo cinema which composes almost every shot as though it was an elaborate fashion display (an artistic exercise justified by its subject matter of the Los Angeles modelling industry) and offers neither thrills nor spills; and then Too Old to Die Young, a 13-hour twist on the police procedural series which tests the viewer’s endurance to a perverse degree. Now, after years of diminishing returns, Refn is back with Copenhagen Cowboy (2023), a 6-episode series released onto Netflix with shockingly little fanfare and greeted with a collective shrug by critics.
There is something perversely admirable about Refn’s steadfast commitment to indulging in his most controversial formal impulses. Rather than retreating to more commercial territory following the critical hammering received by Only God Forgives, Refn seemed to latch onto Jean Cocteau’s maxim: “What is being held against you – cultivate it, it is your essence”. To give credit where credit is due: one can never accuse Refn of selling out or diluting his style for easy public consumption. Case in point: Copenhagen Cowboy, a glacially paced revenge-thriller which deliberately denies the audience any sense of tension, excitement or catharsis. All the familiar Refn trademarks are there: every dialogue scene is pointlessly weighed down with pregnant pauses; long scenes of minimal action suddenly explode in outbursts of grotesque violence, with Refn’s camera lingering on the grievous bodily harm inflicted; the pulsating electro-synth score (composed by Cliff Martinez and Peter Peter) is periodically interspersed with the quasi-ironic use of kitschy pop hits; moments of inconsequential action are drawn out endlessly with slow 360-degree pans.
Refn’s lack of curiosity is exemplified by his tendency to turn whatever location he sets his camera on into a quasi-mythic, neon-drenched dystopian hellscape.”
This time, the thinly sketched plot centres on Miu (Angela Bundalovic), a taciturn cipher who traverses several rungs of modern Denmark’s criminal underworld, exerting bloody vengeance on a series of repulsive men who try to exploit her and other young women. In typical Refn fashion, the plot is composed of the dramatically flat protagonist embarking on a series of encounters with the abject: sex trafficking rings; serial killers; torture; bodily mutilation; sexual assault. All this unfolds as a series of tableaux so rigidly orchestrated it renders each one airless and inert. There is, of course, nothing wrong with an artist choosing to devote their craft to exploring the darker side of life, yet there is something frustrating about Refn’s insistence on showing us the worst of humanity while simultaneously filtering all these atrocities through a lens of self-consciously cool detachment. What registers in Refn’s depiction of violence isn’t pity for its victims or righteous anger at its perpetrators (and, by extension, the societal factors which breed and perpetuate violence in his chosen locales). Refn’s violence is stripped of any sense of viscera or genuine jeopardy, yet its sense of distance also doesn’t serve a critical dimension as it does in the work of, say, Michael Haneke. While a filmmaker like Haneke provokes an intellectual response, prompting the audience to actively think about their own attitudes towards on-screen bloodshed and raising myriad ethical concerns about the relationship of the screen to real-world brutality, Refn demonstrates little interest in exploring the sociological, political or moral implications of the horrific acts he depicts.
Refn’s lack of curiosity is exemplified by his tendency to turn whatever location he sets his camera on into a quasi-mythic, neon-drenched dystopian hellscape. While a skilled auteur can respond to the specificity of a landscape foreign to them while still maintaining their own unique artistic predilections, Refn simply imposes his viewpoint on every environment he films to the point that they all look more-or-less the same. viewpoint on every environment. It says much about Refn as a filmmaker that he can set his action in places as disparate as Los Angeles, Bangkok, Copenhagen and Mexico and make them all seem essentially interchangeable. Each location is treated as a perilous hotbed of sin, and corruption, yet Refn never takes the time to detail how these criminal ecosystems are actually structured, how they function, or how they are embedded within larger socio-political currents. Without this specificity, Refn’s works simply come across parades of one-dimensionally depraved people committing pointlessly depraved acts. And as much as Refn prides himself on his willingness to put unflinchingly depraved bloodshed on screen, there is nothing here to substantially challenge or provoke the viewer. We are constantly encouraged to view ourselves as morally superior to the string of sadists and are able to uncomplicatedly sympathise with the series’ central avenging angel. In other words, for all its posturing towards provocation, Copenhagen Cowboy is essentially a straightforward tale of good and evil. The flattening of the very real and very complex issues the series flirts with into such a simplistic framework is childlike in its naivety at best, offensive at worst.
James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann (Telos Publishing). His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.