*DISCLAIMER: I just wanted to say that this a rarity, I don’t usually do reviews for TV-series, but since Too Old to Die Young‘s director, co-writer and co-creator, Nicolas Winding Refn, has continually described/labeled this as a 13-hour movie, and I’ve taken it as such. So I wouldn’t suspect reviews like this too often, with that said let’s go ahead and get started!*
Filmmakers often head to television in search of a broader canvas to tell their stories (broader often meaning a longer runtime). It’s usually less attractive to those who relish texture over plot, as well as cinematic experimentation. In recent years, Nicolas Winding Refn has veered closer to that category, constructing a moody body of work around expressionistic showdowns that build to bloodiness with grim finality. But as television continues to provide more room for innovation and continually become more and more cinematic, Refn’s ten-part hitman saga Too Old to Die Young, a thirteen-hour Amazon series, of which Refn has insisted is just a thirteen-hour movie or a serialized movie, arrives right on schedule.
After his success with his 2011 film Drive, Refn could’ve done anything he wanted; he was offered, at separate times, the James Bond film Spectre and Denzel Washington’s adaptation of The Equalizer. Those projects never came to fruition as Refn continued doing his own unique thing, which is how we got the films Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon. And because of his insistence on stirring the pot, Refn was an unlikely candidate to receive a blank check, which is exactly what he seems to have gotten to make Too Old to Die Young in all its manic glory. It’s most obvious point of comparison being David Lynch’s eighteen-episode (or eighteen-hour movie, as many also call it) masterwork Twin Peaks: The Return. And not just because they’re both stories which essentially unfold in continuous, dreamlike sequencing. Like Lynch, Refn is a master of framing and shot composition, his devotion to each shot brings countless scenes all of which are gorgeously blocked and lit. (Working here with two phenomenal cinematographers Darius Khondji and Diego Garcia, not to mention unconventional production designer Tom Foden and the euphoric and possible career best score by Cliff Martinez, certainly doesn’t hurt.)
Miles Teller in Too Old to Die Young
To say that Too Old to Die Young leans hard into abstraction is almost an understatement. It’s definitely one that won’t appeal to all, but there certainly is an audience for it, especially the Refn die-hards. Which is also perhaps why it’s hardly being promoted by Amazon at all, and can only be found via manual search on the streaming service. The series’ plot definitely isn’t your atypical TV structure, through all the thirteen hours it does consistently carry a surplus of ideas, most of which have to do with power struggles and violence, particularly who wields it and who suffers its inflictions. The first episode (which along with the multiple others is over ninety minutes long), Volume One: The Devil, sets the foundation and explores the hierarchies of the world Refn and co-creator Ed Brubaker have created, spending an inordinate amount of time with two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies — Martin Jones (Miles Teller) and his partner Larry (Lance Gross) — as they shake down a young woman for a few hundred dollars in exchange for letting her off without a ticket. The opening sequence quickly (well, not exactly quick) delineates the moral line behind which these cops stand, and shortly afterwards the shakedown is complete, Larry gets gunned down by Jesus (Augusto Aguilera), an American-born cartel lieutenant, as revenge for killing his mother.
But contrary to Refn’s claim that Too Old to Die Young can be viewed out of order (he backed that statement by screening the fourth and fifth episodes at Cannes and only gave those installments to TV critics ahead of its release), this series does have a linear narrative that’s decently easy to follow, and one that’s often compelling to glacially marinate in. Shortly after Larry’s death, Teller’s Martin is promoted to detective and soon comes into the orbit of Viggo (John Hawkes), a dying ex-cop who kills L.A.’s worst of the worst under the guidance of a charming seer named Diana (Jena Malone). Soon, Martin begins moonlighting with Viggo, killing lots of bad people, many of whom are connected to pedophilia. But there’s a bitter irony at hand, as Martin has been in a relationship with a seventeen-year-old named Janey (Nell Tiger Free), whom he started dating when she was sixteen.
Cristina Rodlo & Augusto Aguilera in Too Old to Die Young
In the spirit of Ryan Gosling’s characters in Refn’s films Drive and Only God Forgives, Teller’s Martin is relatively mute; more distressingly, he unloads a large amount of spit. The dialogue-to-spitting-on-the-ground ratio is, at times, quite close to being 50-50, but overall it’s a pretty solid performance. Martin’s story is paralleled with another story line focused on the previously mentioned Jesus, whose mom was one of L.A.’s top drug kingpins. Jesus goes on a sabbatical to Mexico before taking over the business, finding his partner Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo) in the process. Yartiza also does some moonlighting of her own, killing cartel men and freeing their subjugated women, referring to herself as “The High Priestess of Death.” If you want to know, the story lines do eventually intersect, but even with a slow-building narrative, much like Refn’s other ventures, the story beats take a back seat so that the auteur can establish his atmosphere. Which is a familiar one: The neon-tinted world of Too Old to Die Young is inhabited with countless rapists, gangsters, and pedophiles, reflecting not just the worst in humanity, but a society that enables their impulses.
It sounds very heavy, because most of the time, well, it is. But in a welcome change of pace, Refn lets some dark levity into his twisted world. The detectives Martin works with are overwhelmingly inept and are prone to chanting “FASCISM!” in the office. (Yeah, I don’t know how to properly explain it.) But best of all, as Janey’s father Theo, Billy Baldwin I’ll just say goes all in with his performance. Meeting the adult sleeping with his underage daughter with enthusiasm, he calls Martin a Tiger, growls at him with a stuffed animal Tiger in his hand, quotes Richard Nixon, often makes a snorting noise in mid conversation and at one point pleasures himself in his home theater with Martin just one row back. So… yeah… the dark absurdist comedy he brings works pretty well.
Too Old to Die Young does offer some encouraging tweaks to Refn’s signature blend of brutal violence and overt sexuality. There are often characters in Refn films whose own violent forms of justice counteract the brutality other characters inflict on women and children. Martin serves that purpose, but as revealed by his literally illegal relationship with Janey, he’s a false idol. Instead it’s Yaritza who ultimately proves herself to be the proper savior. Refn is still a provocateur who heavily deals with sexual violence, but with Yaritza, Refn is giving one of his female characters agency rather than merely using them as bloodied victims, as some have accused him of in the past.
Too Old to Die Young is incredible, or, at the very least, incredibly unique. The series is undoubtedly the most auteur-driven piece of television since Lynch gave us surrealist nightmares, atom bombs, and Dougie Jones in Twin Peaks: The Return. And it will be unlike anything you see on TV this year, or possible for the foreseeable future. But in today’s age of binge-watching, this is a series I would not recommend doing such. As absorbing that much Refn in such a short time will for sure age you by a couple of years. Though glacially paced, with Too Old to Die Young Nicolas Winding Refn has crafted an evocative, brutal, hypnotizing, essentially thirteen-hour movie.
Too Old to Die Young can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video now!