The versatile and innovative Amazon Prime brings Nicholas Winding Refn’s new series “Too Old to Die Young” to its streaming service, which debuted on June 14th, and I am sure they are hoping it will triumph in this over saturated time for streaming series in the marketplace. Or will they? You have to search for the series, it doesn’t come up on the “now trending” section, and there has been very little advertising for it other than Amazon hinging off Refn’s cult following.
Back in 2016, Refn’s previous feature film “The Neon Demon”, which I consider a masterpiece that made my top 10 list in 2016 that starred Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, and Keanu Reeves was a major box-office failure, earning only over $1 million on a $7 million budget. However with blu-ray/dvd and streaming sales, “The Neon Demon” has now reached cult status, and it was more appreciated as time goes on.
Refn’s new Amazon series “Too Old to Die Young” is a groundbreaking and innovative new mini-series that is 13-hours long, with 10 episodes or rather volumes. The show is very brutal and graphic, not to mention sexually and violently charged. Overall the film pushes the realms of what a mini-series can do, and its on the same artistic level as David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” which was also mind-blowing. Just as Lynch’s show the series has a mixture of absurdity to brutal violence, with hints of absurd humor merged with surrealism that also hold supernatural elements.
Just as Refn’s previous films like “The Neon Demon’, “Only God Forgives”, and “Drive”, the film is highly stylized and artfully made. Bathed in neon and artificial lighting with meticulous framing, extravagant visuals, and sheer technical craftsmanship. The characters also hold a lot of long pauses, contemplate their thoughts, and gaze deeply into landscapes. These are the trademarks of Nicholas Winding Refn(#ByNWR) who is a true artist at work.
The Danish auteur premiered only episodes 4 and 5 at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, in which Refn has screened every film of his since 2011’s “Drive”. It was wise choice because chapter 4 and 5 are the most defining and explosive episodes of this sprawling series that Refn calls a “13 hour” movie. The series is aimed to polarize, not just with its graphic nature, or with its slow-burned pacing, its self-indulgence, it is subversive and unpredictable on all levels. This is a show that defies all expectations as it unfolds, and like “Twin Peaks: The Return”, you can never quite predict or determine where the series is going to go.
One thing is for certain, “Too Old to Die Young” is not so much a cautionary tale about the doom that awaits western civilization, however its almost like Refn is psychic predicting the inevitable collapse of it. In one of the series’ most graceful moments, “Too Old to Die Young” finds police detective turned hit-man Martin Jones (Miles Teller) and his hit-man ally Viggo (John Hawkes) driving down a desolate road, both men are silent as an angry Rand Paul like voice is warning about the collapse of America.
The characters of Martin Jones and Viggo are a metaphor rather of America dying, Viggo is actually dying of cancer. Both hit man don’t kill without purpose, but rather kill with a morale code that consists mostly of pedophiles, kidnappers, rapists, and other forms of sexual predators that put children, women, and vulnerable gay men into great harm and coercion. Collaborating with comic book writer and screenwriter Ed Brubaker, who also co-wrote the script for “Captain America: Winter Soldier”, is a great fit for Refn.
The films neo-noir, neon bathed film has a graphic novel feel to it. The story at its cores is about Martin Jones, who dives deep into a world of killing people, which leads him down a path of severe consequences that involve mob bosses, psychics, hitman, sex rings, and brutal Mexican drug cartels that shows the Western world has already reached a level of decadence. The theme of the story is all about the destruction of society, it is an exploration of decadence in society that holds a lot of subtext that starts off as metaphors and illusions, that eventually become textually literal.
The dreamy atmosphere separates reality and fantasy, that also separates artificial and natural, and Refn and writers brilliantly suggests how our natural world is now being overran by the artifice. We also see motifs and satire on fascism, where Martin’s police team chants “Fascism” out loud, and there is even a scene of a brutal drug cartel ring leader named Yaritza , that rescues prostitutes in a human trafficking ring, in which one of the johns holds a swastika flag in the background. Refn suggests that once a civilization reaches a level of vileness, it is inevitable that narcissism, authoritarianism, and tyranny rises.
Overall this is a masterfully made series, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and many elements are left inconclusive and ambiguous. The show is clearly influenced by David Lynch and even Quentin Tarantino, and the films main protagonist is the anti-hero that is in the vein of Refn’s previous protagonists that Ryan Gosling acted in with “Drive” and “Only God Forgives”, in which if you recall those films Gosling’s characters found himself trapped in a dark underworld that left him way over his head.
The parallels can be found here as well with the main protagonist in the show, Martin played brilliantly by Miles Tellar, whose partner has been gunned down that is linked to a underground network of a brutal drug cartel, mobsters, and psychics. Martin has a secret relationship with a billionaire’s teenage daughter, Janey (Nell Tiger Free), who’s father, Theo (William Baldwin) is a wealthy billionaire who holds a lot of passive-aggressive contempt towards Martin for dating his daughter. Theo drills, belittles, and even ridicules Martin to his face the leads both men down a intense confrontation inside a metaphorical projector room of Theo screening parts of Martin’s life as a police officer.
Meanwhile Martin ends up moving up in the ranks as a homicide detective in the show. Martin also secretly does hits from a Dominican crime boss named Damien (Babs Olusanmokun). After many hits, Martin ends up teaming up with fellow freelance hitman Viggo, who in the series both carry out hits on child sexual predators, pedophiles, and other rapist scum. Martin is trapped in a world of decadence, even with his police force he has to hear far-right rhetoric from his senior lieutenant (Hart Bochner) who leads his police force into chanting “Fascism” . The defining episode is episode 5, when Martin takes on a horrifying job from Damien to track town two brothers who run a sinister abuse-ring porn empire that involves rape and snuff in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Episode 5 offers the most tension and build-up, this is the “Drive” off the series.
I also wanted to mention that the two strong female characters truly thrive in “Too Old to Die Young”. Yaritiza (Cristina Rodlo) and Diana (Jena Malone) bring balance to the story. The final two episodes truly focus on the two women, and Refn almost brings a thesis statement. Diana talks about the future holding a “Dawn of innocence” that will arise after society collapses from tyranny, murder, rape, and nihilism annihilates the world. Its almost as Diana and Yartiza are attempting to stop this by fighting back, and murdering the evil men who coerce themselves on others. The series takes an Old Testament viewpoint, showing that wrath and violence are the only way to rid the worlds vileness and cruelty. It is a nihilistic worldview, but Refn is more interested in the idea of decadence. The story is dark and very extravagant, but the show isn’t nihilistic itself, its more fascinated with the ideas of decay. There is also a great moment in the film where the drug cartels are holding debates how they should generate more money as the beautiful song “Elvis and Marilyn” just wrapped performed on stage by the real life band Jimmy Angel and the Jason Gutierrez 3 in pure Lynchian fashion. One of the leaders suggests they should have “Cartel TV” that could bring a lot of followers goes to show how the internet now sensationalizes and glorifies decadence and violence.
“Too Old To Die Young” is a revelatory show that I feel will find a greater audience in years to come. It is tonally similar to David Lynch that merges the pulpy notion of Quentin Tarantino. How can one resist that combination? Its also a study about sexual violence and Refn uses a lot of psychology to suggest that the main characters in the story are all victims or rather survivors of sexual abuse. Refn does this without spelling anything out, it is only visually and psychologically suggested . “Too Old to Die Young” is lurid and deeply disturbing, but it is brilliantly made and groundbreaking. It is the most rewarding 13 hours you will find if you are looking for something more fresh and less conventional. “Too Old to Die Young” just might be a 13-hour streaming mini-series, but its also a cinematic and astonishing work of art. It is a triumphant landmark of 2019.