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Too Old To Die Young review - Nicolas Winding Refn's cynical, gorgeous critique of modern America


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“I want the worst guys you got”, says Miles Teller’s laconic police officer a few episodes into Nicolas Winding Refn’s much-anticipated Too Old To Die Young.

It’s a blunt, nihilistic request, but one that sums up Amazon’s new streaming show well. This is a show about contemporary America, or rather contemporary Western society, and it’s an ugly America – a repulsive gallery of fascist cops, adulterers, murderers, pornographers, and torturers. Some of these are even main characters.

Image Credit: Amazon Prime

Refn is no stranger to examining the dregs of society, for example looking at Britain’s most violent prisoner in 2008’s magnificent Bronson or being dragged deep down into the seedy criminal underworld of his absolute masterpiece Drive (2011). This is his first foray into television, but that’s not how he would have it – he calls Too Old To Die Young a film. It’s not hard to see why; most episodes are feature length, they have a higher quality of production and design than many traditional films, and two episodes premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

It chronicles an ensemble of characters; a broad canvas of America’s worst and most interesting. Miles Teller is ostensibly the protagonist Martin, an LAPD officer who moonlights as a vigilante. Like many of Refn’s protagonists, he’s a man of few words. But where Drive’s Ryan Gosling would give hints of an underlying romance and humour in his mysterious lead, Martin is much more mannered and dour. When funny things happen, he sits there with a bemused look.

He’s a loner, framed through doorways or car windows. This doesn’t make him any less compelling, though, because it’s when he does let up the façade, revealing inner-torment, it makes it much more rewarding. Similarly, a late-series moment where he properly spends some time with his girlfriend seems perversely romantic only because his isolating lifestyle has neglected her for so long.

His girlfriend is Anne, played fiercely by Nell Tiger Free. She’s underage, just one of the many troubling aspects that surround the show’s morally-murky world. Her confidence and determination, despite her youth, makes her compelling as she tries to cope after her mother passes. Her father meanwhile, a brilliantly sleazy William Baldwin, snorts and slimes his way through their expensive yet heartless house.

Elsewhere, Martin is committing dirty contract killings for Damian (Babs Olusanmokun), utterly captivating as he gruffly delivers orders with little expression. However, Martin meets John Hawkes’ Viggo and Jena Malone’s Diana, the former a one-eyed killer who carries out hits based on the latter’s spiritual callings. Malone is mysteriously otherworldly, while Hawkes draws sorrowful sympathy from his hurting, well-intentioned killer who feels abandoned by the world – a world which he foresees will soon be “washed away in floods, buried in sand”.

But unbeknownst to Martin, a Mexican cartel wants his head. We find he mistakenly killed the mother of its head, Jesus (Augusto Aguilera), who shares an Oedipal connection with her deceased spirit. Helping him channel this spirit, almost acting as cipher for his mother, is Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo); she’s almost supernatural, having been found in the desert and baring the name “The High Priestess of Death”. She’s wry and powerful and helps Jesus’ corrosive descent from reluctant head to foul dictator. It’s a show of many strands and many stories, and they all interweave in enticing and surprising ways carefully overseen by Refn and comic writer Ed Brubaker. The eventual moment when two key characters happen to finally cross and unite the stories is extremely gratifying, causing dread as we fear the chaos to come.

The official trailer for Too Old To Die Young, available on Amazon Prime

Besides his penchant for long, tense periods of silence, Refn is best known for his presentation. Too Old To Die Young is no exception. It’s beautiful, with every shot impeccably framed and lit. Scenes are drenched in neon lights, be they ominously bloody reds or sickly, venomous greens. This is almost a brand for Refn – after all, each episode begins with “#NWR presents”. It’s quite possibly the best ever looking show, with cinematographers Darius Khondji and Diego Garcia giving it a boldly colourful, painterly look. Every technique is executed to perfection, too, with drawn-out tracking shots, panning shots relishing in their surroundings, and slow zooms. It must be said that sometimes these can be used repetitively, especially in the polarising, slow second episode.

Accompanying the gorgeous visuals, the sounds are equally impeccable. Frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez provided a strings-and-synths score at times offering squishy, mechanical pulses, while at others offering quasi-religious choral voices. This is in keeping with the whole themes and tones: absolute grunge and filth, with hints of the supernatural and religious. This is Refn and Brubaker’s apocalypse. In fact, Refn bathes in the filth. This is a world of seediness, drenched in unapologetic neon and occasional, nasty gore. As Martin tries to seek redemption by killing society’s worst, every glimmer of hope and closure is deliberately snatched away.

The show is deliberately problematic. It can be hard to judge whether it’s criticising issues - or inadvertently glorifying them through their presence. The treatment of women is difficult, for while it may sometimes sexualise them, at the same time one character goes on rampages to free female sex slaves, massacring awful men. It’s a captivatingly futile, hopeless world but that isn’t to say there aren’t moments of absolute awe and levity. It’s a twisted cousin of Drive’s never-shredding car-chase, and there is truly no one who does an exciting chase like Refn.

Too Old To Die Young can be a long, uncompromising journey - its content uncomfortable, its silences sometimes pushed too far, and its violence deeply unpleasant. But if you attune to its world, it’s rewarding beyond words; the silence is tense, the humour is black, the visuals are stunning, and the critique of a vulgar world is both pointed and harrowing. Ugliness has never looked so beautiful. 

All 10 episodes of Too Old To Die Young are available now exclusively on Amazon Prime.

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