Too Old to Die Young brings the genre provocateur Nicholas Winding Refn to Amazon for a 13-hour miniseries.
Maintaining a distinct authorial presence is one thing; becoming so repetitive that the audience can essentially guess exactly what every frame is going to look like before seeing your next film is quite another. Nicholas Winding Refn continues his rapid descent into self-parody with the vile, ugly, joyless television project Too Old to Die Young, and as usual, it finds the filmmaker taking a simplistic genre narrative and applying his usual roster of aesthetic strategies — performances pared down to total inexpressiveness, red-and-green neon lighting, frontal tableaux, 360° lateral pans, lengthy pauses between each line of dialogue, an electronic synth score — to craft a series of airless, hermetically sealed images.
It is difficult to tell exactly what Refn intends to achieve by recycling glacial pacing, side-on tracking shots, and cliché action-movie narratives that deny the viewer any sense of tension, fun, or emotional involvement. The only thing we can be sure of is Refn’s desire to perpetuate his own self-constructed mythos as a maestro provocateur (the project opens with a title card which reads “A Film by #NWR,” immediately letting us know that we’re in the hands of a brand-builder).
Too Old To Die Young is set in the underbelly of Los Angeles, which Refn imagines as a hellish hotbed of human trafficking, knife crime, prostitution, drug dealing, and other illicit activities that would make your grandmother blush, presided over by an omniscient network of mobsters. The cops are more interested in lining their pockets than keeping the streets clean, and in their absence, a vigilante named Martin (Miles Teller) takes it upon himself to restore moral order. Martin is a stoic hitman with a strict moral code who will only commit to a job if he knows that the mark in question has committed a sin severe enough to warrant a death sentence — for example, he refuses to target a Korean businessman who owes his boss $8000, but gladly bludgeons a child molester.
Tired of having to sort out the monsters from the (relatively) innocent, Martin finally requests that his boss simply give him a list of the most heinous associates he has. Martin then reveals his intention to kill everybody there, free of charge. Aiding in his mission is his mentor, Viggo (John Hawkes), who delivers long, technophobic speeches about the downfall of Western society since the industrial age, asserting that the only way to combat the widespread amnesia is to take the law into one’s own hands. However, Viggo has his own method of sorting out the just from the immoral: he has a psychic advisor (Jena Malone) who is able to read crystal energies to locate the bad guys in the area.
The second part of the two episodes picked from the middle of Too Old to Die Young‘s 10-part season deals with Martin closing in on his first major hit: two brothers who run an underground porn ring which abducts children for use in their incest/rape-themed fetish films. For no discernible reason other than to give Refn an excuse to revel in deplorable material for as long as possible, Martin spends the day tracking the pair as they go about their business, finally joining them as he pretends to be interested in participating in a sex scene.
The themes touched upon in Too Old to Die Young are deadly serious, and require sensitive treatment by ethical artists — not the flippant clowning of a puckish shock-monger eager to work through his list of taboos. Early into the first episode, Martin is called onto a crime scene; Refn’s camera relishes the sight of several murdered model-like women, their breasts exposed and their entire bodies soaked in blood. This is only the first of countless scenes which tastelessly fetishize horrible violence, paying no attention to kinetic immersion, but rather lingering on the resulting injury detail. Instead of building suspense, Refn prefers to shock the audience with abrupt climaxes (often captured in the middle-ground of wide shots), and then perversely bask in the resulting trauma.
When not relishing physical suffering, Refn is delighting in psychological abuse. A characteristic sequence sees one of the pornographers methodically undress and hose down a captive, visibly shaking woman for an unbearably long period of time. As the characters are treated as nothing more than hollow mannequins within the antiseptic mise-en-scène, such sequences do not encourage identification with either the perpetrator or the victim of the violence. Instead, they exist to flaunt the self-satisfied chutzpah of Refn himself, who oppressively foregrounds his authorial presence at every moment.
If Refn is attempting to highlight man’s capacity for brutality, all that he’s actually accomplished is an illustration of the repellent, adolescent cruelty of his own artistic sensibility. He is proudly parading disturbing images on screen for no reason other than to stroke his own ego — and like most provocateurs, he lacks the courage of his convictions, always eager to undercut the vile material he puts on screen with an easy, winking gag. Not long after the aforementioned hose sequence, the same man banters with his partner about what song to play on the radio; it’s a scene that could have been lifted from a lame 80s buddy cop movie.
This perpetual disingenuousness is one of Refn’s most pernicious attributes. The director indulges in the most toxic parts of genre filmmaking, but maintains enough of a distance from the material to create the illusion that he’s above it all. It is this calculated sense of knowingness in Too Young to Die Old which might encourage critics to overlook its appalling racism (the crime-infested underbelly of Los Angeles is coded in explicitly racial terms) and misogyny (nearly every woman on screen is treated as a lust object and/or is subject to sexual humiliation). The question of to what extent does Refn know that the images he’s perpetuating are horrifically retrograde frankly becomes insignificant when there is nothing contained in the film text itself, which suggests a desire to actually subvert or comment on these images in any serious way.