Too Old To Die Young review: Depraved yet delicious, Amazon and Nicolas Winding Refn’s new show pushes boundaries of streaming
Too Old To Die Young
Director - Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast - Miles Teller, Augusto Aguilera, John Hawkes, Jena Malone, William Baldwin, Cristina Rodlo, Nell Tiger Free
Rating - 4/5
For someone who can’t drive, Nicolas Winding Refn seems to have his best ideas inside vehicles. It was in the backseat of Ryan Gosling’s car - curled up and crying, listening to REO Speedwagon - that Refn pitched him Drive, his masterpiece. And it was inside another car that he came up with the title Too Old To Die Young, decided it sounded cool, and took it from there.
Years after that car ride, Too Old To Die Young has arrived, fleshed out into something that even Refn could not have foreseen. It’s a TV show, but he hates calling it that. In some interviews, he has described it as a very long movie, but that isn’t entirely accurate either. Refn’s preferred description for his latest project is ‘streaming’. “It’s the future,” he declared joyfully at Cannes, where, in true Refn fashion, he screened fourth and fifth episodes of the 10-part show at a grand premiere, and got his desired result. It was the same reaction that had followed the Cannes premieres of his two previous films, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon - infuriated walk-outs, sustained boos, and an almost defiant smattering of applause.
Watch the Too Old To Die Young trailer here
Like The Neon Demon, and Drive, Too Old To Die Young is also set in Los Angeles, that perennial damsel in distress. But this isn’t the LA of Michael Mann or Billy Wilder’s films. This is Refn’s LA -- a fantasia hellscape populated by Mexican and Russian gangs. There is also the Cartel, and the Yakuza; there are dead mothers and maniacal fathers. There is an excellent desert car chase soundtracked to the music of Barry Manilow. The central cast of characters is made up of a one-eyed vigilante, a voodoo woman, and the latest in Refn’s endless line of asexual, emotionally vacant heroes.
Were this a conventional film, Detective Martin Jones would have been played by Ryan Gosling. He’s very similar to the sort of men the actor has played for Refn in the past -- near-silent, with a psychotic glint in their eye, guided by a Samurai’s code - a bushido, if you will. In Too Old To Die Young, this stock Refn character is played by Miles Teller.
Teller, the supremely talented young actor who has delivered knockout performances in films such as Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, only read the first episode before signing on. Neither Refn nor his co-creator, the great noir comic book writer Ed Brubaker, knew where the story would take him - or them, for that matter.
It’s safe to assume that an apocalypse would’ve been the last thing on their minds - especially after the largely pulp-noir tone of the first five episodes - but that’s the highway down which Refn takes his show. What starts off as a unique, but familiar cop story turns into something more surreal, existential, fantastical and, ultimately, horrific.
Fate puts Martin Jones on a collision course with Jesus (Hay-soos), the heir to a large crime empire, left behind by his slain mother. After taking revenge on the cop who killed her - Martin’s partner - Jesus goes into exile in Mexico. The entire second episode, and possibly a third of the series, is set in the lawless landscapes of Mexico, infested by cartels and corruption. These scenes, and Jesus’ story, mirror Michael Corleone’s from The Godfather. He isn’t American, but was born there and conditioned to ignore his heritage and culture, until he is forced to confront it, drowning in a sea of violence and mayhem.
Too Old To Die Young is especially nihilistic, even by Refn’s insane standards. It’s exhausting and excruciating in equal measure, but it is also an endlessly fascinating addition to a great filmmaker’s singular body of work.
It’s a European outsider’s perspective into American moral decay; the cancerous manner in which one country has (problematically) caused the systemic rot of the rest of the world. “Soon our cities will be washed away by floods,” John Hawkes’ vigilante paedophile killer tells Martin in one scene, “buried in sand, burned to the ground.” Refn isn’t having any of it. And in an unexpected change of pace for him, it’s the female characters who emerge as the saviours of our race - slicing and shooting their way through the most despicable men imaginable, ‘protecting the innocents, as the world fractures’.
Although admittedly provocative, it was perhaps not the wisest decision to screen two randomly chosen episodes from the middle of the story to the press at Cannes, especially since those two episodes also happen to be the most distressing. The out-of-context chapter possibly gave an inaccurate impression of the show, and led many critics to believe that it was unduly violent towards women, whereas in reality, Refn had the opposite idea in mind.
“Once, there was just man and nature,” Hawkes’ vigilante says in another scene, “And then men came bearing crosses… And then, men conquered nature, and bent it to their will.” Too Old To Die Young is peppered with grandiose speeches such as this; about existence and death, about the corruption of man, and impending societal collapse. I believe this is Brubaker’s work, because writing dialogue isn’t one of Refn’s strengths. He likes to tell his stories through images, and here, he has collaborated with the great French cinematographer Darius Khondji, known for David Fincher’s noir masterwork Se7en, several late-period Woody Allen movies, and Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights.
Khondji’s Neo-noir aesthetic is a great match for Refn’s signature style, which Too Old To Die Young is steeped in. The Los Angeles scenes are immeasurably beautiful to look at, framed like… well, panels out of a Brubaker crime comic. There is a stillness and a silence to the story, which might leave casual viewers thoroughly miffed. This show is strictly for fans.
Which is perhaps why, despite being one of the service’s most buzzy new projects, Amazon has released it without much publicity. Several fans have complained online that it has been buried deep down their customised homepage, and despite being the intended audience, they’ve had to actively seek it out. That’s a shame, because Refn has brought the arthouse to our computer screens. At 13 hours long - barring the finale, every episode is over one hour long; four are over an hour-and-a-half long - you don’t simply watch Too Old To Die Young; you experience it, you inject it into your veins, you allow it to penetrate you and regret the decision later.