Too Old to Die Young Review: Nicolas Winding Refn's captivating neon nightmare
The series has the dark humour of a Coen Brothers film, the nihilism of a Cormac McCarthy novel, and the surreal atmosphere of a David Lynch film.
I must admit to being infuriated on more than one occasion by certain moments in Nicolas Winding Refn's first Amazon series Too Old to Die Young (TOTDY). It's the reason why it took me a while to finish it. But being a die-hard fan, and because every frame is so beautifully lit, I couldn't resist the urge to sit through the whole thing.
TOTDY, which Refn co-wrote with Ed Brubaker, is the filmmaker's most self-indulgent work till date. The boundless freedom granted to him is evident in every frame. The enthusiasm and daring with which he treats the 10-episode series are akin to that of a child who gets an entire playground all to himself, to play with whatever toy he likes.
Refn takes his own sweet time introducing his character backgrounds and motivations, starting from Miles Teller's Martin, an LA sheriff moonlighting as a hitman. He has been sleeping with an underage girlfriend who later introduces him to her father (a supremely eccentric William Baldwin). But Martin's sexual preferences are tame compared to the other characters who are introduced much later. These scenes are shot with a clinical hand and don't border on titillation. This is a world populated by hitmen, vigilantes, and Yakuza mobsters -- all painted in high contrast colours (a Refn trademark). Expect to be greeted by all sorts of eccentric characters.
You can tell Refn relished his stationary as well as slow panning shots. Nowhere in his filmography are they more abundant than in TOTDY. He positions his actors like mannequins -- a style that he was criticized for when Only God Forgives came out -- and because of this, it's sometimes hard to tell the humans from the plastic figures. In fact, there is one scene where his characters walk into an underground neon-lit (wherever Refn goes, neon lights follow) warehouse where a few mannequins can be seen in the background. This method of handling actors is reminiscent of French auteur Robert Bresson's, who wanted his actors to be merely vessels to convey his ideas rather than indulge in an acting exercise. And it's only apt considering how every character in TOTDY behaves as if they're dead inside. Their interactions are divided by intermittent pauses. A conversation that can be wrapped up in two minutes might take up to twenty in this world.
Refn's work post-Drive has been increasingly bizarre, violent, and nihilistic. As in The Neon Demon, you get to witness in TOTDY his best and worst impulses. The long, drawn-out sequences are occasionally punctuated by sudden bursts of violence. Some episodes are marked by a twisted sense of humour which can be uneasy or comforting depending on how you want to see it. Remember the Marvin scene from Pulp Fiction? Refn is always trying to come up with new ways of killing people on screen. Right from his debut film, he has been obsessed with the violent nature of man (he was once expelled from an institute for allegedly throwing a chair into a wall). The characters get what is coming to them, and you feel no sympathy for them later.
The series has the dark humour of a Coen Brothers film, the nihilism of a Cormac McCarthy novel, and the surreal atmosphere of a David Lynch film. It's a combination that is probably not going to work for a lot of people. I've come across a few friends who gave up after the first episode. I almost did myself. But if you are patient and determined enough to go with the flow, perhaps you would end up with a richly rewarding experience. Refn's distinct vision, combined with the strong support from composer Cliff Martinez (his recurring collaborator) and cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Midnight in Paris), make this a series worth watching, at least once.