Warning: This review contains spoilers and is based on all 13 hours of Too Old to Die Young. Not seen the series? You can read our spoiler-free review of the two episodes that premiered at Cannes here.
It might appear that Nicolas Winding Refn is trolling the audience, when his ultra-violent Amazon-backed series, Too Old to Die Young, begins with a cop declaring women to be the ultimate evil, that they lack empathy and get in the way of male freedom. Fear not: by the end of this often extraordinary 10-part odyssey into the heart of human depravity, you’ll know whose side the director is on – and that the opening scene of two cops menacing a beautiful woman pulled over for a minor traffic violation was clever and thematically important.
Of course, a large part of the viewership (those who are not hardcore Refn fans), might have checked out long before Episode 10. Make no mistake, many casual viewers will struggle with this languid, some might say zombified drama, and give up about 40 minutes into the first episode, once they cotton onto the fact Refn is as interested in shimmering light reflecting off surfaces, bodies posing like department store mannequins for minutes on end and crafting malefic and dolorous moods instead of straight, traditional, ITV-style storytelling. And who could blame them? This was never going to be a hit series for the masses. Like Twin Peaks in 2017, Too Old to Die Young moves on its own terms and isn’t in any rush to get to where it’s heading.
The Danish provocateur’s directorial style is uncompromising stuff. You either roll with it or you don’t. The glacial pacing – is slow genre cinema a thing? – the non-responsive acting style, which achieves a hypnotic effect, the sordid goings-on and the fetishising of material wealth is part and parcel of the director’s vision. Tom Foden’s sumptuous production design and the expressionist cinematography by Darius Khondji and Diego Garcia beautifully complements the falling-into-quicksand fatalism of the story, too.
‘Lynchian’ is often used to describe Refn’s own brand of cinema, and there’s some truth to that. William Baldwin’s scenery chewing turn as coke fiend billionaire, Theo, a sort of Donald Trump as Los Angeles hedge fund manager, recalls Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet (1986), in both its manic drug-charged energy and menacing, sexual tyranny. But Refn’s touchstones are equally Kenneth Anger, Alejandro Jodorowsky, comic books, S&M, Italian genre cinema from the 1960s, Japanese culture and the glamourous world of haute couture. It might be best to describe Too Old to Die Young as a slice of classic Los Angeles noir nihilism tricked out like a graphic novel whose aesthetic is ripped from a glossy fashion-magazine spread. Its array of humid and febrile neon images, usually captured in remote-controlled camera pans and very long takes, wishes to seduce and intoxicate as much as repel and disgust. Refn’s imagination is a dark place, but it‘s rewarding for those who brave the path.
Miles Teller stars as sheriff department detective Martin Jones, a character reminiscent of Jim Thompson’s Nick Corey (from Pop. 1280) or Lou Ford (from The Killer Inside Me, Wild Town and others). While he is ostensibly the lead and most recognisable over the course of 10 parts – known as Tarantino-esque “volumes” – Augusto Aguilera’s Jesus and Cristina Rodlo’s Yaritza, members of a Mexican cartel, are featured prominently. The episodes, parts, volumes, whatever you wish to call them, work as self-contained plots linked by a grander, mysterious narrative schema.
Refn, ever the showman, has claimed you can watch his and co-creator Ed Brubaker’s opus in any order you wish, as it would all make sense in the end. It’s true. As an experiment in non-sequential plotting, and to prove his point, the director showcased volumes 4 and 5 of Too Old to Die Young, at Cannes, clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, and released it under the alternative title ‘North of Hollywood, West of Hell’. On Amazon Prime Video, the volume titles reflect the show’s occult and supernatural leanings, with Tarot card-style names. Volume 1 is The Devil, Volume 2 is The Lovers, Volume 3 is The Hermit, and so forth.
Those au fait with Refn’s cinematic worlds and preoccupations will pick up on the continuation of a recurring topic: the figure of the avenging angel. Seen in Valhalla Rising (2009), Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), these films feature otherworldly characters doling out extraordinarily gruesome beatings and killings. What’s different, though, compared to previous titles, is the edging towards a full-on apocalyptic meltdown. The male characters thrive on torment and chaos, are riddled with Freudian impulses, from incest fantasies to violent excess, and seek to dominate through making others suffer. “I’ll turn this city into a theme park of pain,” cartel boss Jesus declares. In response to this negative male energy, Yaritza, the High Priestess of Death, a folkloric figure, operates as a corrective to the menace and is tantamount to a superhero.
It’s tempting to read the overall plot as a NWR’s take on a superhero origin tale. Jena Malone’s Diana (a name with mythic associations) is also akin to somebody like X-Men’s Professor Charles Xavier, although she too is totally cool with bloodletting and eye-for-an-eye vengeance in the name of righting dreadful wrongs. John Hawke’s Viggo, a philosophical, one-eyed ex-FBI agent turned hitman, is Diana’s holy messenger to crooks in the world. They receive his messages in a hail of lead. Co-creator Brubaker’s background working for Marvel and DC really comes into play, in this regard. Yaritza, most of all, takes a place next to Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye, Ryan Gosling’s Driver and Vithaya Pansingarm’s Chang as one of Refn’s Divine Punishers.
Too Old to Die Young won’t be garlanded with praise. It likely won’t any win awards. But it represents a major artistic achievement and victory for the director and Brubaker. Folk will undoubtedly be put off by the sordid story, the grotesque misogyny of the male characters, the (incorrect) feeling they’ve been had by a jokester auteur, and a protagonist who, like Andrew Garfield’s brilliant performance in Under the Silver Lake, isn’t exactly a figure to root for. But how incredible is it that Nicolas Winding Refn got Amazon to finance what is essentially a 13-hour art film? The filmmaker skewers misogyny, male entitlement and toxic masculinity, much like David Robert Mitchell’s misunderstood psycho drama did, but it might take a while for viewers to catch up.
Too Old to Die Young premieres is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.