Nicolas Winding Refn must be one of the most earnest filmmakers alive. His movies — Drive, The Neon Demon, Only God Forgives — have been accused of prioritizing a “cool” aesthetic over meaningful story, and his new, 10-episode series, Too Old to Die Young, remains true to his polarizing self. The two episodes that screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival are full of neon lights, pregnant pauses, electronic music, and hyper-violence, much like the rest of Refn’s work. They also defy such easy categorization.
Too Old to Die Young, which premieres on Amazon Video on June 14, is a police story, but couldn’t be further from Law & Order. Martin (Miles Teller), a cop, and Viggo (John Hawkes), a killer under Diana’s (Jena Malone) employ, only kill the worst of the worst; their missive is to protect the innocent, and their conviction is so firm that Martin at least refuses payment for his work. When he ends up being sent after a man whose only crime is owing money, he makes it clear to his employers that he won’t kill a man over cash. But the rest of the men he goes after — almost invariably rapists — he dispatches without mercy. Catharsis, however, is limited. Vengeance can only be administered after a crime has occurred, after all, and the threat of violence hangs over all of Refn’s new show like a bloody, unsettling veil.
The nihilism of his main characters can feel a bit like trolling, especially as they monologue about the slow destruction of society and man’s inherently violent nature. But when car chases through the New Mexico desert are staged with an electric car, a fight over what to listen to on the radio, and a full-blast rendition of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” it’s impossible to take it as irony. It’s a funny cue, but it’s not meant as a joke; it’s as heartfelt as the Manilow needle drop in Hellboy 2.
Refn, who co-wrote the series with comics writer Ed Brubaker, doesn’t lack for self-awareness. The halting speech and ponderous musings that are a part of his signature style are complemented by scenes in which his characters have to interact with “normal” people. Their exaggerated mannerisms are suddenly almost comic, and the people around them have just as little idea of how to deal with it. They’re welcome touches of levity not only because they clue us into the fact that Refn isn’t all the way up his own horn, but because the rest of Too Old to Die Young is impressively (oppressively) heavy.
That the series can supposedly be watched with the episodes in any order (two pulled from the middle of the season, “North of Hollywood” and “West of Hell,” retitled “The Tower” and “The Fool” for streaming, were shown to critics) drives this uneasiness home, as the violent incidents that pepper each episode take on more of a sense of chaos when untethered from a linear narrative.
“West of Hell” in particular is a hell of a ride, opening with a back and forth between a boy who’s just turned 18 years old and a pornographer played by Venture Bros.’ James Urbaniak. Most of Too Old to Die Young stretches like molasses, instead of moving at the rapid-fire pace you’d expect for a thriller. Even without the context provided by the previous episode — Urbaniak plays one of two pornographer brothers who specialize in rape films — the drips of each scene are harrowing to watch. There’s no questioning that something awful is about to occur.
Matters are complicated by the fact that Martin’s girlfriend is just about to graduate high school; despite hewing to high moral standards in his moonlighting as an assassin, he can’t uphold them in his personal life. The way that the camera lingers on acts of violence and the bodies of women also tests the limits of what audiences will stomach without calling the material fetishistic — and maybe even hypocritical given the way the series condemns those who would do the same.
It’s such things (as well as Refn’s own words, including calling Too Old to Die Young a “13-hour movie” in a Cannes press conference rather than a TV series) that can make it difficult to reckon with Refn’s work. However, the sublime moments the filmmaker captures — the “Mandy” chase, the karaoke interstitials in Only God Forgives, etc. — act like spotlights. The distinctive aesthetic and pace are the work of an artist who loves what they’re doing.
This is peak Refn, from the casting (Teller in a terrific performance as a stoic, Gosling-in-Drive-esque cop; Hawkes in a role that takes full advantage of his lanky, rangy frame; a cameo from Hideo Kojima as a katana-wielding Yakuza) to the music (the melodramatic needle drops) to the sounds (electronic hums that grow into snaps of gunfire) and everything in between. Even with all the brutalism of the past, Too Old to Die Young is his most striking project yet.