After one of the series’ gracefully quicker hits, Too Old To Die Young finds police officer turned hitman Martin Jones (Miles Teller) and his handler Viggo (John Hawkes) driving down a California highway in the dead of night. The two men are silent, as is the road ahead of and behind them. The only sound that director Nicolas Winding Refn allows to infiltrate the scene is the angry voice of a radio show host complaining about “clowns… on the sidelines” who are the “white noise background for the collapse of the American empire.”
If this seems like an abrupt and nonsensical way to start a review of Refn and Ed Brubaker’s neo-noir crime epic, which stretches across ten episodes that collectively amount to 13 hours of story, then you know what it’s like to actually watch it. In a way, it seems that the Danish director and the famous comic book writer purposefully want to confuse their audience. Yes, there are the core stories of Jones, who sinks deeper into a world of murder, drugs and debauchery following a loss, and the equally perilous journey of the man responsible for that loss who set Jones on his path. With time, these duelling stories may eventually make sense.
Then again, that all depends on whether or not you have the time – and the patience – to endure what literally amounts to a 13-hour movie on Amazon Prime. Or, if you rely on Refn’s conception of things, it’s neither a movie nor a television show. As the director explained it to IndieWire, “television is dead as a doornail – but streaming is like a whole new opportunity… it’s a different concept, in a way, because it’s uncontrollable. You just log on [and] log off. It’s a coexistence now. Episodic television was designed when television was once a week on an analog channel. Why do we still retain the same narrative and constructions from a time that doesn’t even exist?”
Add to this the fact that, when Refn premiered Too Old to Die Young at Cannes in May, he did so by combining the fourth and fifth episodes, The Tower and The Fool, into a single cinematic piece to appease the film festival’s organisers. (These were also the only two episodes that were made available to reviewers for preview.) At first glance, such a distinct narrative choice would presumably make it difficult for the viewer to understand what was happening in the story. (If you had never seen an episode of Game Of Thrones and were randomly dropped somewhere in the third season, for example, you probably wouldn’t understand what was happening, who it was happening to and why.)
This is either going to pay off in a big way for Refn’s latest project or explode with nothing more than a slight whimper. Fans of the director’s recent forays into barebones storytelling – like the arthouse films Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon – will enjoy what he’s trying to accomplish with Too Old To Die Young, if not, at least, appreciate the effort. The characters are big in their own subtle ways, as is the case for Teller’s Jones and Hawkes’ Viggo, especially. Plus, aside from granting his actors a lot of leeway with their choices onscreen, Refn’s highly stylised approach to filmmaking is on full display throughout the fourth and fifth episodes.
Newcomers to Refn’ style may be able to parse some of what’s going on, thanks in large part to Brubaker’s insistence on crafting a more discernible narrative than not. But the chances are good that lay Amazon Prime subscribers who happen upon the platform’s carousel of new shows, and find Too Old To Die Young waiting for their perusal, aren’t going to enjoy what they find there – let alone understand what’s going on.
Others have already commented on Too Old To Die Young’s apparent thematic, tonal and stylistic connections to another highly convoluted, stylised and inaccessible television phenomena: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. These are fair comparisons to make, but they ultimately fail once you consider a rather important factor. Lynch’s original two-season run and television movie preceded the very streaming boom and revival craze that would make Twin Peaks: The Return, the show’s “third” season, possible. And even with the benefit of hindsight, Lynch managed to successfully skewer what his own programming had laid the groundwork for while simultaneously advancing it forward.
Refn and Too Old To Die Young may purport to believe that television is dead, cinema is exquisite and streaming is a “whole new opportunity,” but the execution largely fails. The show/13-hour movie/whatever you want to call it amounts to nothing more than a dark and brooding series of images and characters that, though as beautiful as they are surreal, are mostly empty. They’re empty for a painfully long time, too. Or, to quote the angry disc jockey from Jones and Viggo’s noir car ride through the annals of Los Angeles after another kill, it’s 13 streaming hours’ worth of “white noise.”
Too Old to Die Young is now streaming on Amazon Prime.