Too Old to Die Young, a ten-episode noir thriller from director Nicolas Winding Refn, is every bit as stylish, hypnotic, and upsetting as you would expect from the Danish auteur. Too Old to Die Young (TOTDY), marks Refn’s first jump to television, though the director doesn’t see it that way. Refn, known for films such as Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon, instead calls the series a 13-hour, serialized movie. TOTDY, which took two years to produce and edit, is quintessential Refn. Its gorgeous cinematography (from cinematographers Darius Khondji and Diego Garcia), neon-lit backdrop, and unnaturally paced dialogue paint a picture of Los Angeles’s seedy underbelly that often borders on the abstract.
The premiere episode, entitled, “Volume One: The Devil”, introduces the viewer to the some of the major players, and Refn’s version of Los Angeles. The episode mostly follows Los Angeles county sheriff deputy Martin Jones (Miles Teller) and establishes the sort of morals this deputy has. The opening sequence has Martin and his partner Larry (Lance Gross) pull over a young woman and shake her down for cash in exchange for letting her off without a ticket. Just after the corrupt deputies shake down the woman, Larry gets gunned down by Jesus (Augusto Aguilera), as revenge for the cop killing his mother. Even though Jesus gets away, Martin finds a picture of Jesus on Larry’s phone, but decides to keep that information to himself instead of giving it to the police.
Instead, Martin takes the phone to the leader of a criminal organization named Damian (Babs Olusanmokun) to get information on Jesus and hopefully his location as Martin seeks revenge in Larry’s slaying. On top of that, Martin has to deal with meeting his underage girlfriend Janey’s (Nell Tiger Free) father, a coked-out venture capitalist portrayed by William Baldwin. Meanwhile, Jesus is hiding out in Mexico after killing Larry, taken in by his ill uncle, the head of a Mexican cartel. Back in Los Angeles, Damian forces Martin to start working for him by taking hit jobs, his reason being that Martin was really the one who killed Jesus’s mother and caused Larry to get killed.
Teller’s and Aguilera’s performances, as Martin and Jesus respectively, are very reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s performance as Driver in 2011’s Drive. They’re fond of staring dead-eyed and silent into the middle distance and waiting several seconds before responding to what another character has said. Those familiar with Refn’s work will find nothing out of the ordinary with that, but newcomers may find themselves put off by its creeping storytelling. Ultimately, this ends up being the episode’s biggest weakness. Refn’s long tracking shots and characters that stare off into the distance for too long work much better in his films than it does here. The episode clocks in at about 75 minutes, but it could have been trimmed down to an hour or even 45 minutes without losing any of the major story beats.
TOTDY is an ambitious project from Refn, and it works for the most part. It’s stylish, atmospheric, hypnotic, and at times brilliant, but its slow pace might be a turn off for viewers unfamiliar with Refn’s work. Composer Cliff Martinez’s score for the series may be his best yet. Martinez, who has worked on many of Refn’s films, brings his signature electronic melodies to TOTDY, but has also challenged himself by experimenting with other instruments for this soundtrack. The result is a hauntingly beautiful and eerie sound that elevates the unease of tense moments. Teller’s performance as Martin is stoic and often unnerving. To me, Martin is a reflection of Refn’s version of Los Angeles. Long tracking shots of the setting and long takes of Martin staring off into the middle distance accompany each other and feel tied together. Where Los Angeles is shown as a beautiful city hiding a sinister underbelly, Martin is shown as a well-liked police officer with a darkness inside him.
Nicolas Winding Refn is one of those filmmakers that you either love his work or you hate it. There’s no middle ground. Fans of the Danish filmmaker will likely enjoy Too Old to Die Young, while critics of his work will likely dislike the series. Refn’s films lean hard into arthouse, which can be difficult for newcomers to get into, but once you can make it past that hurdle, Too Old to Die Young is a fine addition to Refn’s work. It’s style over substance in the best way.
Too Old to Die Young is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
(Photos: Amazon Studios)