Pop quiz: What’s your favorite Nicolas Winding Refn movie?
Let’s hope most folks are coming to Too Old to Die Young, the Danish writer-director’s pulpy-as-fuck TV series for Amazon Prime, as something akin to fans. Or, at the very least, as viewers semi-aware of his back catalog. Because God help you if this is your first official entry into Refnworld — it’s either the worst possible introduction to his signature brand of steroidally stylized neon noir, or the “best” introduction in the worst possible way. Mileage, as always with this provocateur, varies to a divisive degree. To anyone dropped into his landscape of stoic antiheroes and lurid violence and water-torture pacing without a map, we wish you the best of luck.
But back to the quiz question above: Is it any part of the Pusher trilogy, the three-part, three-perspective tale that helped break Refn internationally and introduced future Hannibal Lecter/Bond villain/internet boyfriend Mads Mikkelsen to the world? Is it Bronson, a staggeringly brilliant biopic of British convict Charles Bronson featuring Tom Hardy hitting Kabuki-levels of theatricality? It’s most likely Drive, his Ryan Gosling star-vehicle riff on getaway drivers; it probably isn’t the duo’s follow-up Only God Forgives, though hey, different strokes, etc. (Their Thailand-based thriller is better than its reputation suggests.) Or maybe it’s The Neon Demon, his welcome-to-Hell-Ay parable about professional models eating their own.
OK, now: Imagine said favorite film was extended to 13 hours. Same amount of story, really. Might be divvied up into parallel narratives. Maybe a few extra detours here and there. But the same basic narrative grist for the mill. Stretched. Out. To. 13. Hourrrs.
Unless your name is Ken Burns or David Lynch, maybe you need to think long and hard about whether that time length, parceled out over 10 installments with an average length of an hour and 15 minutes, is a necessity or simply an indulgence. (Some episodes run up to 90 minutes; the last one runs a mere half hour. Call it a coda.) Especially if your primary motive to do something in a longer, serialized format is because hey, everyone seems to be doing this streaming stuff, so I’d better do one, too! That was more or less the excuse Refn gave at this year’s Cannes, where he showed two middle episodes, for making this extended, existential gaze into both the abyss and his own navel involving cops, crooks, cartels, and creative ways of torturing carbon-based lifeforms. He also said that this wasn’t TV — a medium he defines as “reality shows and the news” — but, y’know, a very long movie. Right. Of course, your majesty. The sense that you’re watching something from an auteur who somehow believes he’s slumming virtually emanates from your screen.
So what does our man paint on this large canvas? We start with a cop named Martin (Miles Teller), the sort of strong, silent type that suggests either post-traumatic suffering on lockdown or a purposefully blank slate. His partner (Lance Gross) has the ability to turn a routine traffic stop into a situation that threatens to go full Bad Lieutenant in a blink; still, it’s surprising when someone simply walks up to him and puts a bullet in his head. The tragedy earns Martin a promotion to detective. It does not earn him a pass from a local gangster (Babs Olusanmokun), who forces him to take on his late partner’s role as a personal killer for hire. Nor does it stop you from being skeeved out over the fact that he’s dating a 17-year-old high school student (Nell Tiger Free).
We then follow the shooter, Jesus (Augusto Aguilera), south of the border. The police officer had murdered the killer’s mom, a famous female drug lord. His uncle (Emiliano Díez) takes him in and teaches him the way of the cartel. When a power shift happens, Jesus and the old man’s ward — a young woman named Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo) he rescued from the desert and raised as his own, though not without certain untoward implications — are married. The couple is then sent to America, with the intention of protecting the organization’s interests. There is also unfinished business regarding that revenge killing. There always is. Also, did we mention that Yaritza may or may not be the human embodiment of an ancient folklore legend/Tarot mainstay known as the High Priestess of Death?
More characters will wade into the fray, notably a one-eyed ex-FBI agent (Deadwood‘s John Hawkes) who becomes a mentor to Martin and a New Age healer (Jena Malone) who employs said former fed to hunt down particularly predatory sex offenders. There are also rape-porn magnates, pedophiles, methheads, #MeToo harassment case studies, more Trump stand-ins than you can shake an Access Hollywood tape at and, occasionally, just your run-of-the-mill scumbags. Plenty of toxic masculinity to go around, in other words — which is the point. The rogue’s gallery of underworld bottom feeders and serial child molesters and violent misogynists that Refn and his co-creator, comic writer extraordinaire Ed Brubaker, have come up with don’t just represent the worst of society to them so much as Society Circa 2019, a who’s who of everyday degenerates and deplorables. And as with the world we inhabit, a lot of that boils down to the evil that men do. “The good guys” is an oxy-moron here.
It will take an angel of death to cleanse the world of abusive dudes, which is why the series and your focus keeps circling back to Yaritza. She’s the vehicle for the director’s more supernatural, surreal inclinations, which have been growing since Only God Forgives and his decision that he’d rather be Alejandro Jodorowsky redux than a poor man’s Michael Mann. It also helps that she’s played by Rodlo, an actor who knows how to hold a screen no matter what size it is. She’s a great observer with a killer side eye, a performer who knows how to make stillness and minimalist touches count in a maximalist splatter-mess. It goes without saying that Refn, a filmmaker who never met a colored lighting gel he didn’t biblically love, and legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji (The City of Lost Children, Seven) bathe everything in hallucinogenic hues and dark-night-of-the-soul shadows and a distinct netherworld-as-a-nightclub vibe. It also bears mentioning how her character is the only one who actually seems tailored to fit the show’s tone and vision; not even Teller, giving the best Robert Mitchum impersonation of the 21st century, can sync up his Chandleresque sketch of a protagonist to the narrative. Someday, someone will make a super-cut of Rodlo’s scenes and give us one hell of a three-hour XY-chromosome nightmare.
In the meantime, we have this limping, baggy megillah, which fails to justify its marathon-length running time as anything more than a self-satisfying, hardboiled-by-numbers folly. You can, naturally, make a pulpy crime story look perversely gorgeous, piling everything from narco chic costume design to Pop Art visual schematics onto your palette. You can give your gangster a quirk by having him be a vintage ska fanatic and you can stage a ridiculously elongated car chase to Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” the series’ set piece/action-flick middle finger du jour. You can cast Morgan Fairchild as White Privilege and give William Baldwin a seven-course meal of scenery to chew on, complete with onanistic power moves. You can use misogynistic imagery in the name of upping the revenge ante and female empowerment, even though every single person really wishes you wouldn’t. You can even use extreme violence as an exercise in fetishized carnage. Who doesn’t love a well-made cinemassacre? Or, for that matter, watching a Nazi get shot in the dick?
But when you’re given the chance to engage in longform storytelling and translate that into nothing but letting scenes play out to infinite lengths simply because you can, or mistake the exploitation of slow-cinema vocabulary with instant depth, or fail to realize that maybe less is more when it comes to your art-to-grindhouse aesthetic, you may get called on it. Refn’s right: This is not TV. It’s self-parody. And it doesn’t take half a day’s worth of viewing to figure out that maybe we’re getting too old for this shit.