If your sole experience of Nicolas Winding Refn’s work is 2011’s ultra-cool, ultra-slick L.A. noir, Drive, starring Ryan Gosling in a silvery white jacket with embossed gold scorpion on the back, his venture into long-form storytelling, Too Old to Die Young, might come as a bit of a shock. A collaboration with Amazon Studios and writer Ed Brubaker, it is glacially paced with actors delivering their lines like they’re zonked out on downers, cacophonous Lynchian sound design and a pummelling electro score by Cliff Martinez, which sounds like it was recorded in abattoir; it makes NWR’s TV odyssey a very challenging prospect for the average viewer looking for standard-issue genre thrills.
Like David Lynch, in 2017, who declared Twin Peaks to be a really long movie, more than it was a TV show, NWR spoke similarly at the Cannes press conference about his own opus. Both are right and both are wrong. Aesthetically, it’s closer to cinema. That is correct. But nearly almost everybody will watch Twin Peaks and Too Old to Die Young on a smaller screen than those at the movie theatre, be it a 50-inch HD monster with a kick-ass sound system in the living room, a 16-inch bedroom telly, an iPad or – gulp – a smartphone.
Martin Jones (Miles Teller) is a cop by day and an assassin by night. Like other characters in NWR’s oeuvre, he has a large appetite for violence and is another in the director’s long line of men who punish wrongdoers in old-school, eye-for-an-eye fashion. The depiction of Los Angeles is reactionary, bizarre, frightening and verges on the apocalyptic. John Hawkes’ Viggo – like Martin, a hitman – speaks as if he’s a prophet foretelling the end of the world. We’ve reached the zenith of human civilization, Viggo says, while surveying the metropolis below from the Hollywood Hills. Our world is corrupt, plagued by misery and set for destruction. As a vision of society, it is borderline fascistic and mercilessly cruel, a Travis Bickle wet dream.
The two episodes shown back-to-back as a feature-length work at Cannes present us with a terrifying and bleak environment. Titled North of Hollywood, West of Hell and boasting an epic running time (almost 2 and a half hours), the un-rushed momentum of the storytelling allows the viewer to be fully submerged into NWR’s dark twisted fantasy, although little in the way of plot is given away, as it moves forward entirely on its own terms. So, if you thought the dude sweeping up in the Roadhouse, a notorious scene in Twin Peaks, was super-slow and seemed to last an hour, Refn has upped the slowness ante considerably. What the leisurely pacing does, crucially, is set a specific tone, a savage mood of outright malignancy and present us with a stone-faced enigmatic figure named Martin.
It is clear the L.A. Sheriff’s Department detective is having some form of crisis. He decides to refuse payment for his moonlighting activities, asking his handler instead to give him the worst of the worst, so he may purge them from this mortal coil and maybe feel a sense of honour in doing so. Although a cop, he cannot act above the law in his day job. The nighttime, however, gives his impulses free rein.
NWR is a master stylist with a penchant for the gonzo. Mystical handlers, samurai gangsters, philosophy-spouting murderers, Nazi pornographers and a lead character who’s greyed the area between good and bad so much that neither antihero, misunderstood hero or villain with a badge appear to fit. The use of colour is sublime, too. Neon light burns like a fever, void-like shadows threaten to consume people, and the sound design cleverly gets across the feeling of being submerged in filth and depravity. Where the story goes, based on two episodes, is anybody’s guess, but it seems truly bravura and exciting stuff; NWR has found the cash to make a 10-hour film noir in the key of Only God Forgives. Such a description might have some running for the hills and refusing to engage, but true fans of his brutal style will rejoice. If there was one word to sum up the overall vibe of Too Old to Die Young, it would be ‘sordid’. Compellingly so.
Too Old to Die Young premieres is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.