The vulgar auteur commits to a 13-hour crime drama that trafficks in his most minimalist, cynical sensibilities.
After 10 theatrical films and a handful of smaller projects, Nicolas Winding Refn makes his first foray into episodic storytelling with Too Old to Die Young. Wallow in it, love it, hate it, or do all of the above, but just don’t call this 10-episode project a television show. “This is a movie. It’s a 13-hour movie. It’s streaming; it’s not TV,” the director said after its premiere at Cannes last month. “TV’s, like, reality shows and some news channels.”
So just what is the difference here? Is it the narrative opaqueness? Is it the nebulousness of the project that engulfs its viewer instead of engages it? Is it just the length? Or is it the pointed lack of structure, which only veers towards a narrative when it shows opportunity for some sort of contradiction? These are all fascinating ideas with most of its potential hinted at, but it might take more time to entirely convince. For now, it’s a stylish and insidious wasteland that marks the filmmaker’s most political work to date, regardless of what medium it falls into.
Per the director’s request—and in what feels like a pointed effort to downplay most narrative context—Amazon only brought the fourth and fifth episodes to Cannes. It’s clear that plot isn’t the focus here but a tenuous handful of events instead. Refn and co-creator Ed Brubaker focus the most on Martin (Miles Teller), a police officer and hitman in the Pacific Southwest. What’s more tantalizing, though, is what borders on an ensemble setup.
Porn-producing gangsters, psychics, war veterans, Yakuza members, and more all get their splashes here as well, and as Refn and Brubaker downplay everyone’s agency, everyone holds a bit more relevance than they otherwise would have. It’d be a waste of time to try uncovering any sense of their pasts, or even their presents. They all might as well be ghosts. Their land is a purgatory slowly descending into hell.
As Refn’s version of a Western, it has all the stolid progression such a descriptor would entail.
And while that surely won’t work for most viewers, one can’t help but admire Refn’s less-is-more approach. Gone is the arch symbolism and cloying motifs of Only God Forgives, but also gone is the sick pleasure of The Neon Demon, which marks something of a lost opportunity here. Too Old to Die Young is Refn at what might be his bleakest, with a pointed effort to care about its characters as little as possible—at least in the traditional sense.
It instead cares about their destruction—the destruction they commit, and the destruction of themselves. Everything takes place under the weight of some unseen, inevitable collapse, all of which Refn presents as so passive that it doesn’t quite qualify as nihilistic. It has just enough of a moral compass here to evade that, feeling more cynical instead. Each plot thread, each shell of a character, and each stamp of Americana at its breaking point is so frayed that it acts as more of a warning of society’s darkest tendencies than anything else.
It isn’t exploitation; that would require some sort of titillation. It isn’t thrilling; that would require the promise of some immediate consequence. It’s engaging in the minimalist sense, though, as Too Old to Die Young ungulates with stillness and unease to the point where every action seems perched on the edge of purpose without said purpose showing itself. As Refn’s version of a Western, it has all the stolid progression such a descriptor would entail.
However, as a shameless look at a world falling into itself, it can be as hypocritical in its treatment of women as it is mournful in its most disturbing depictions. Add in the tangential conflict between Western and Eastern mythologies and it becomes a Rorschach test that can be as much or as little as the viewer wants it to be. Too Old to Die Young makes little go much longer than one might expect, sticking to the center of its moral compass while plunging south.
Too Old to Die Young premieres on Amazon Prime Video Friday, June 14th.