Saturday, July 13, 2019

Too Old to Die Young

Nicolas Winding Refn’s new Amazon series, Too Old to Die Young, is a lot of things, many of which are equally maddening and fascinating. It takes just a few minutes into the first episode to realize how the show is going handle the passage of time, which proves to be one of the most telling things about the entire series.

Too Old to Die Young is very deliberately paced. Much of the show contains extremely long takes, requiring the viewer to slowly take in a setting and watch the action (which can be absent, sparse, or intense, depending on the scene) unfold. This style of pacing cannot be emphasized enough when discussing this show, because even for the most diehard Refn fans, Too Old to Die Young is bound to test the patience of anyone who watches it. I don’t have any insight into the terms that Amazon and Refn agreed on for this show, but it feels like Amazon gave Refn a cap budget and said, “Fuck it, do whatever you want.” And he did. And it is absolutely insane.

The show’s expansive narrative is far too intricate, frustrating, and unsettling to fully explain here. Thoroughly breaking down each episode of the show, which range from 31 to 96 minutes long, would be a vexing exercise in criticism. But, to carefully surmise:

Initially, the show appears to be about a quiet, steely LAPD Deputy named Martin (Miles Teller). Martin doesn’t say much, instead choosing to stand in the background as his more confident (and, it turns out, emotionally terrifying) partner, Larry (Lance Gross), takes lead on their calls. When he’s not on the job, we start to get insight into Martin’s personal life. He’s dating a much younger woman, Janey (Nell Tiger Free), whom he met when he responded to a call of Janey’s mother dying by suicide. Janey introduces Martin to her rich creep billionaire father (William Baldwin), who enjoys toying with Martin for the hell of it.
Babs Olusanmokun as Damien
A sudden act of violence helps introduce us to more people in Martin’s world, including the unnervingly reserved Damien (Babs Olusanmokun), a local crime boss who Martin and Larry carry out hits for. So, yeah, Martin and Larry aren’t just dirty cops, they are absolutely filthy with violence, extortion, threats of sexual assault – you name it. In fact, no one in Too Old to Die Young is good. Every character who occupies this show is criminally flawed, ranging from shockingly narcissistic to uncommonly ferocious.

Before the events of Episode 1, Martin and Larry carried out a hit on a Mexican cartel boss named Magdalena, but it is unclear if Martin or Larry actually killed her (this is a crucial detail for later in the show). Episode 2 (by far the show’s most patience-testing chapter) is spent almost exclusively with Magdalena’s son, Jesus (Augusto Aguilera), who is seeking revenge for his mother’s death, while also taking over his mother’s cocaine empire with savage might.

Jesus is a momma’s boy psychopath with very deep-seated and disturbing desires that only his eventual wife, Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo), seem to understand. Yaritza, in fact, proves to the show’s most complex and mesmerizing character. She’s far more than just the loyal cartel wife archetype, as she spends portions of the show moonlighting as a vicious assassin called The High Priestess of Death. Jesus and Yaritza’s collective cold, intelligent, and calculating demeanors make Damien’s personality look like that of a Disney character. There are simply no limits to the depravity of any of these people.
Augusto Aguilera and Cristina Rodlo as Jesus and Yaritza, respectively
Despite the deliberately slow pacing of each episode (more on that in a bit), Too Old to Die Young has no problem passing healthy amounts of time between episodes. When Episode 3 begins, Martin has graduated from a uniformed deputy to a plain clothes detective, working for an outrageously un-PC lieutenant (Hart Bochner; Ellis from Die Hard!). With Martin’s quiet bloodlust apparently unfulfilled by his job as a detective for the LAPD and hit man for Damien, Martin links up with Diana (Jena Malone) an LA, new-age healer type who helps parents seek final revenge toward pedophiles who have abused their children. If a parent expresses interest in vengeance, Diana calls her go-to hitman, Viggo (John Hawkes), and/or Martin to carry out the hit.

Whew. That may seem like a lot, but I’ve barely dug in. And please, let me be clear, if this crude plot description sounds like the show turns into Jesus hunting Martin down for revenge, it is far more involved than that. That is an aspect of the story, but Refn is more concerned with how these people live their lives, and the impact of their acts, rather than the acts themselves.

Every actor in the show appears to be performing exactly how Refn wants them to, and they all deliver uniquely transfixing work. Most of these characters are, as mentioned, quiet, observing, cold as ice, oddly funny, and grotesquely violent. As Martin, Miles Teller delivers a performance that rivals his great work in Whiplash, even though Martin is the anthesis of Teller’s Whiplash character. I wouldn’t have assumed that Teller could fill the emotionless, bleak demeanor of a Refn leading man so effortlessly (as Ryan Gosling has proven to do), but Teller does, with careful consideration into every word he utters and action he takes. Jena Malone seems destined to play in any world Refn creates, William Baldwin has an absolute blast chewing the ever-loving shit out of every scene he’s in, and Babs Olusanmokun and Augusto Aguilera each display their detached psychopathic pathos perfectly.
Cristina Rodlo as Yaritza
But the performance highlight is Cristina Rodlo, who is utterly terrifying and captivating as Yaritza. Yaritza barely speaks in the show, but her face, which seems stuck on an expression that could be interpreted as welcoming, deadly, mesmerizing, or all three at the same time, is impossible to look away from. I always strived to know more about Yaritza and was thankful that Refn gave her more to do in the show’s later episodes, which is where Too Old to Die Young thrives.

It feels appropriate to circle back to the show’s style, because if Too Old to Die Young is to garner criticism outside of its gruesome violence and devilishly un-woke politics, it would be that the show, more so than anything Refn has done, is style over substance. And that criticism isn’t necessarily wrong. Nicholas Winding Refn is obsessed with style, and how it can inform narrative. His gorgeous neon lighting, painstakingly long zoom and pan shots, harshly out-of-focus camera, and electronic music by Cliff Martinez are all on full display here, which will, to mention yet again, test the patience of even the most loyal Refn fans.

I can, however, confidently admit that Too Old to Die Young is the best-looking, most intricately shot television show I have ever seen. Almost every single composition is visually breathtaking, even if the shot is held for too long, or features something violent. Apparently, Refn spent nearly nine months filming this season, and that shows here. I’d like to think that a lot of that shooting schedule was spent ensuring that every single aspect of each shot was perfect. Because ultimately, every light is placed precisely where it needs to be, and every camera movement reveals exactly what it intends to reveal, in however much time it deems necessary. I did get occasionally bored by how slowly the narrative moved, but I never tired of how flawless everything looked. Darius Khondji and Diego García, who have solo cinematography credit on a few episodes each, and share co credit on Episodes 2 and 5, deserve endless praise for their work here.
A fantastic shot from Episode 5, The Fool
In terms of pacing, it’s hard for me to be objectively critical of something a director is doing with such intention. Refn wants the show to be paced this way. He wants to test our patience, to push the limits of what we accept and what we’re willing to sit through. Refn is a proud disruptor; he wears the badge of enfant terrible with honor. Refn has never been concerned with convention, but a regular feature film has convention automatically built into it, as most films are expected to be around two hours long (give or take). But with online streaming, runtime is not an issue. Refn can let things play out as for long as he wants them to, and he really wants to hold on shots here. I can’t say I universally accept Refn’s pace of the show (it took me three separate viewings to make it through Episode 2, the show’s longest chapter), but I absolutely respect it.

The amount of violence in the show is bound to become infamous, but this being Refn, he seems to enjoy how macabre this material is, and is not at all concerned with the audience potentially rejecting it.

Noting that, I’ll leave you with a story. In 2016, I was lucky enough to attend the premiere of Refn’s latest feature film, The Neon Demon, with my friend Nick. The cast and crew were there, Refn introduced the movie, Keanu Reeves excitedly yelled, “YEAH! NEON DEMON!” right as the movie started – it was awesome. But toward the end of the film, right as Sarah (Abbey Lee) cleans up after Gigi (Bella Heathcote), a guy sitting directly two rows ahead of us started losing it. He was sitting in the aisle seat and started moving his body like he was going to be sick. He dry heaved once, tried to get up to leave, but then sat back down and just kept dry heaving. We really thought he was going to be sick right there in the theater. Thankfully, he held it together.

The next day, Nick and I went to an album signing Refn and Cliff Martinez were doing for The Neon Demon soundtrack. Nick, Neon Demon vinyl in hand, approached Refn and Martinez and told them the story about the guy almost puking at the premiere. When Nick was done, Refn put his Sharpie down and said, “Oh man, he should’ve puked. It would’ve been so great if he puked in the theater. Everyone should have puked. That would have made such a great story.”

That’s Nicolas Winding Refn. If you brave Too Old to Die Young, know that you’re stepping into the mindset of an artist who is so unconcerned with how his art is received, he doesn’t care if it makes his audience sick or not. For better or worse, Too Old to Die Young is full-on Refn. No convention, no constraints; it’s gloves-off, unapologetic filmmaking that will likely test any boundaries you have with moving content. A-

Favorite Episode: Easily Episode 5, The Fool. This is one of the chapters Refn screened at Cannes, and it is a perfect, incredibly disturbing, 75-minute bottle episode of television. Once you make it to this point in the series, the rest of the show moves a little easier.

Least Favorite Episode: As mentioned, Episode 2, The Lovers. It’s simply too long (96 minutes) and sparse. Though everything that happens in this episode is essential to the show’s overall narrative later on.

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  1. I am hoping to see it but I'm too exhausted at the moment to kind of watch anything (which is a probably a typical form of grief) while I'm also in need of a new external hard drive as I do plan to watch the entire series in its best format as I'm low on space for the time being.

    I heard it's a divisive show but I'm willing to take a chance on it.

    1. Sorry to hear you're grieving, my friend. If you are exhausted, I don't think I'd recommend watching this right now, because it is exhausting to sit through. I will be very curious to hear your thoughts when you get around to seeing it though.

  2. This sounds crazy :) What I find fascinating is the fact that Amazon actually payed that much money for a TV show that isn't for everyone and won't be liked by most. I presume they did it for prestige and association with the Refn, but still, entertainment is entertainment, they should take that into consideration, too. I know auteurs should definitely have platforms to showcase their artistry, so in that aspect, I'm happy Amazon did it, but still....

    1. I completely agree with this. I am stunned that Amazon (or anyone) agreed to make this thing this way. But I am very appreciative of that, because with each passing year, it's becoming harder and harder for auteurs to display their art. And if Amazon is the platform for them to do so, then so be it! But, still, this show is crazier than cat shit.

  3. I love that you're so respectful about pacing. I wanted to throw my TV out the window when I watched Only God Forgives.

    As I don't have Prime, I didn't realize he was doing an Amazon series. I'll probably get a subscription again to watch the newest season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when that comes out, so maybe I'll check in on this as well. The screenshots you posted remind me a bit of Legion.

    I'm intrigued, thanks for writing about it!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! And don't get me wrong, slow pacing can definitely piss me off and wear me out, but when a director is using pacing SO deliberately, I try to appreciate their intention. But damn if this series didn't really test my patience.

      And, I'm sorry to say, of Refn's films, I think Too Old to Die Young is most in-line with Only God Forgives. It has flashes of brutal fun like Drive, and its cinematography is an extension of The Neon Demon, but its heart lives far more with Only God Forgives than anything else.

  4. Okay, this sounds well worth checking out. I love that Amazon just let Refn get on with it! I loved Drive, hated Only God Forgives and feel somewhere in the middle about The Neon Demon so I have no idea how to feel going in to this TV show!

    1. Oh dear haha! I mentioned this to Brittani above, but, of Refn's films, I think Too Old to Die Young is most like Only God Forgives. That's just in terms of pacing, but pacing is such a big component of TOTDY. The violence in the show can be grotesque like The Neon Demon, and some set pieces are nearly as exciting as Drive, but if forced to choose, I'd say the show is most like Only God Forgives. I'd still love to hear your thoughts though!

  5. Fun story about the dry heaving, I felt that way when I watched Raw (2016). In terms of the new show, it sounds like a continuation of what he was going for with his films.

    1. That's absolutely right, TOTDY does feel like a long-form continuation of what he's going for with his films. Raw, whew, what a journey that one was. I've been a vegetarian for 13 years so it was extra fun for me. And then I called it my 4th favorite film of 2017. Go figure.

  6. Man I have to say I hate Refn, his work has done nothing for me since I frankly grew out of Drive about five years ago. I don't know how in hell he swung a series but I will always give something a go and your review has pointed me towards doing so sooner rather than later.

    1. Also I always love playing the little game with your new header image. So, is it...

      Blue Velvet, Climax, Badlands, Traffic, ?, Suspiria (the crap one?), All That Jazz
      The White Ribbon, Cold War, cant even remotely see the next three, Casablanca
      Earrings(?), ?, ?, ?, Solaris, Dick Tracey, A Woman Under the Influence

    2. Oh man, if you hate Refn, you will absolutely loathe this series. This entire show is Pure Refn, to 11. So please do watch with caution.

      Row 1: Blue Velvet, Climax, Badlands, Traffic, A History of Violence, The Neon Demon, All That Jazz
      Row 2 (bummer so many of these are blocked): The White Ribbon, Cold War, A Girl Who Walks Home Alone At Night, The Good German, The Eyes of My Mother, The Wages of Fear, Casablanca
      Row 3: The Girlfriend Experience (compliment of the month: you thinking this could be Earrings), You and the Night, From Russia With Love, The Wolf of Wall Street, Solaris, Dick Tracey, A Woman Under the Influence.

    3. Nice! Screamed Earrings to me had no idea it was Soderburg, so kudos ;)

  7. I am so happy that an artists like Refn are on the scene . I hate that his art will be picked apart by , impatient, unappreciative, instant gratification needing , attention deficit having individuals. I hope that more of this type of art in cinema gets to tell the tales they do with the skill Refn has .

    Sadly I know many annoying reviews have and will make it harder to see the masterpieces people like Refn creates. But I am very grateful for those of us who absolutely love his style and mastery, that we got to see TOO OLD TO DIE YOUNG. I for one am thirsty for more shows and movies like this and DRIVE. Didn't care for NEON DEMON that much personally. But can agree it was still a very artfully done and well made film. I just didn't care to see the cast of that movie and didn't find them interesting to look at as people.

    1. I agree, I love that Refn has the ability to share his vision with us. His style is so singular, I have to pay attention to him, even if I don't love all of his stuff. I've been wanting to rewatch Too Old Too Die Young actually, especially after watching Copenhagen Cowboy. Did you see that new show?