With no concerns for box office, traditional storytelling or audience retention, the Danish auteur has splashed someone else’s cash on his perversions and sick obsessions – and I cannot look away
Sometimes a show’s title is evocative of its central themes, and sometimes it’s just a plain warning. Too Old to Die Young, the new TV series from Nicolas Winding Refn, does both: it’s deathly dull, morally dubious, and just goes on and on and on. It’s Drive minus the humanity. It’s the boring bits of Only God Forgives stretched out like a screensaver. It’s filled with so many unnatural pauses that sometimes you wonder if the streaming is still buffering. Make no mistake, it’s 13 hours of material begging to be trimmed into a 90-minute movie.
So, why did I devour the whole first season?
The 10-episode, ultra-violent crime series, funded by Amazon, is pure Nic Refn. With no concerns for box office, traditional storytelling or audience retention, the Danish auteur has splashed someone else’s cash on his perversions and sick obsessions. And I cannot look away. There’s never been a show like this before, and there might not be one again – Amazon, clearly dismayed by the final product, have manipulated the algorithms and buried the show on its platform, meaning viewers have to manually search for the title, rather than discover it on the homepage.
“Amazon, clearly dismayed by the final product, have manipulated the algorithms and buried the show on its platform, meaning viewers have to manually search for the title”
You can imagine the pitch. It’s Refn, a fashionable arthouse name who once turned down James Bond, directing a cop thriller and co-writing each episode with Ed Brubaker. So far, so good. It stars Miles Teller as Martin, a crooked police officer with ties to the criminal underworld. Episode by episode, Martin’s drawn further into the crossfire and eventually offers his services as a hitman. In supporting roles, there’s Jena Malone, John Hawkes and, briefly, Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima. The Amazon executives were probably building an awards cabinet and envisioning some sexy, Emmy-winning mix of Whiplash and Drive.
Instead, Amazon got a different kind of neon demon. Too Old to Die Young – North of Hollywood, West of Hell, as its full name goes, unfolds so slowly that it can be classified as avant-garde. It isn’t aiming to capture the rhythms of everyday life, either. Everyone in the show, whether it’s a Yakuza boss or an ordinary citizen, speaks at an unnaturally languid pace and leaves hilariously lengthy gaps in between statements. Even more exasperating are the long, wordless dolly shots that often reveal the same environment we saw a few minutes ago. And the conventional-sounding plot? Well, the second episode, which is 97 minutes long, is entirely subtitled, doesn’t feature a frame of Teller, and is torturously uneventful. When a gang watch an old man drift off to sleep at the dinner table and wait for him to wake up, you wonder if Refn is a fan of Andy Kaufman.
However, if you stick around, it should be for what Refn’s aesthetic achieves with legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji (Okja, Se7en, Funny Games) and a pulsating score by Cliff Martinez (Drive, Spring Breakers, The Limey). The show, which took 10 months to shoot, is not only a labour of love, but evidently an expensive one, too: each frame is exhaustingly beautiful and lit with precision; the locations are vast and filled with intricate objects (a minor character flaunts his personal art collection); and it’s paced as if Refn wants to show off to his director buddies that he was given a blank cheque and final cut. All that’s missing is a hard-to-license Beatles track and Teller humming the “happy birthday” song to really push the budget over the edge.
Thus by prioritising its visuals, Too Old to Die Young very unhurriedly plunges a knife into the notion that TV has to be a writer’s medium. So much so, the dialogue tends to be banal, offensive, or a combination of the two. Your viewing experience might actually be improved if English isn’t your first language. It’s also obvious there wasn’t a traditional writers’ room – if there was, they all quit early in the process. Which, of course, does not sound promising. But who watched Drive for Ryan Gosling’s one-liners?
Subsequently, Too Old to Die Young requires a different kind of attention from the viewer. As the characters are one-dimensional, humourless, and lack inner lives, your focus turns to the elaborate set designs, the shifting colour palettes, the emotional melodies of the synths, the symbolism of the blocking, the coming timing of Teller spitting on the street, the meaning behind certain camera movements – and, yes, sometimes questioning what you’re doing with your life.
The miscasting of Teller, too, also proves fascinating: you’re watching a naturally charismatic performer, someone whose bro-y credentials bleed into every role, being forced to go against his instincts. So you have Teller just standing there, zombielike, barely blinking, as if he’s queuing at a supermarket, even if he’s in the middle of a life-or-death shootout. Sometimes I forget I’m observing Martin and I’m just wondering what’s going on in the actor’s mind. Teller, infamously, was furious when replaced by Gosling for La La Land; here, he seems to be responding with his own 13-hour Only God Forgives.
Moreover, when something riveting actually happens – it could be two naked dudes erotically rubbing cocaine on each other’s skin, or a cunnilingus scene that connects the living with the dead, or a frantic car chase set to Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” – it’s actually impactful. Unlike the formulaic cliffhangers and twists of “peak TV”, the show actually pushes the boundaries of what the medium offers. When episode two breaks all the rules of screenwriting (in, admittedly, the most tedious way possible), everything else becomes unpredictable. It is, in that way, Refn’s version of Twin Peaks: The Return, and one of the few cases where a TV show actually feels cinematic.
In fact, episodes four and five screened at Cannes as if they were a single film. When questioned on why those two episodes were chosen, Refn explained that Too Old to Die Young could be watched in any order. Which is, in itself revolutionary, and speaks to the show’s unique sensibilities (It’s also another way of saying you can skip the ultra-boring episodes. These are two, three and six, although you might as well watch the whole thing.)
But Too Old to Die Young has an ethereal quality that is hard to explain and even harder to shake off. Think of it as a form of meditation. Clearing your head with a mantra for 15 minutes in the morning is supposed to improve your day. But spending however long you can manage in Refn-land is like a dark cloud that follows you around, drains your spirit, and weighs you down. After watching 13 hours of the show, you want to talk to everybody about it: swapping theories about the High Priestess of Death, ranking episodes from most to least boring, and picking up the courage to ask, “Is this show actually good?”
“Refn has described Too Old to Die Young as his way of processing Trump’s America. Whether this is a convenient sound bite or actually true, the series is relentlessly bleak and immersed in the depraved depths of humanity”
As for the heaviness, Refn has described Too Old to Die Young as his way of processing Trump’s America. Whether this is a convenient sound bite or actually true, the series is relentlessly bleak and immersed in the depraved depths of humanity. Everyone seems to be corrupt, murderous or an incestuous sex maniac. It’s hard enough empathising with Martin, a gun-wielding policeman who abuses his power, but he also admits to a fetish for crying schoolgirls – he’s in a long-term relationship with a 17-year-old (do the maths). Then there’s Jesus, a Mexican mother’s boy played by Augusto Aguilera, whose quest to establish a “theme park of pain” is jaw-dropping.
What’s crucial, though, is that the show is self-aware. In episode four, the phrase “life is short” is uttered with a wink. At one point, Theo (Billy Baldwin) forces Martin to watch a crime-drama that looks suspiciously like the series’ opening scene, and laments, “You’re wouldn’t know art if it punched you in the face.” 30 seconds later, Theo goes onto masturbate at the thought of his own daughter. In other words, Refn knows the show is ludicrous, and it really is like being punched in the face for 754 minutes. After all, time is a finite resource, there’s too many streaming options to choose from, and the show can often feel like a big joke on the audience. Still, for those who can stomach it, it’s a 13-hour joke worth savouring.