In what comes across as a deliberate effort to confound cinephiles and critics, filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn chose to show only the fourth and fifth episodes of his 10-episode Amazon series Too Old to Die Young at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Those same two episodes are the only ones available for advance review, even though it’s unlikely that any viewers of the show will start there when it premieres in its entirety on Amazon this week.
Seeing just two episodes in the middle of the season makes it difficult to evaluate certain elements of the show, and it’s not clear how well-established the plot and characters are within the first three episodes. But if those episodes have the same tedious, glacial pacing and elliptical dialogue of the fourth and fifth installments, then it’s safe to say that the show will be nearly as incomprehensible for anyone starting at the beginning.
Co-created by Refn and veteran comics writer Ed Brubaker, Too Old to Die Young follows Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Martin (Miles Teller), who moonlights as a vigilante under the mentorship of former FBI agent Viggo (John Hawkes). Or at least that’s what the series seems to be about, a concept that’s been gleaned as much from advance press materials as from the show itself. In the two episodes shown to critics, Martin also works for a pair of gangsters who may or may not be connected to Viggo and the mystical guru Diana (Jena Malone) who picks out Viggo’s targets.
In episode four, Martin helps Viggo take out an alleged child rapist who frequents a PTSD support group (where Martin and Viggo are both members), and Viggo himself dispatches a middle school teacher who’s supposedly molesting his students. Meanwhile, Martin refuses to kill a man who’s been targeted merely for owing money to the gangster who may or may not be Martin’s employer.
In the fifth episode, that same gangster sends Martin to Albuquerque to kill two brothers who make porn films out of what appear to be gang rapes, and also are involved in some sort of kidnapping plot. Despite running a patience-testing 75 minutes, this episode fails to provide basic information about Martin’s mission or his targets. To be fair, Refn and Brubaker seem completely uninterested in delivering anything resembling basic information, and Too Old to Die Young is far more about style and shock value than it is about tight plotting, effective suspense or interesting characters.
That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s seen Refn’s recent films, which have been moving increasingly in the direction of atmospheric abstraction since his 2011 hit Drive. At times, Too Old to Die Young plays like a parody of Refn’s style, and Teller’s taciturn, affectless Martin could be a parody of Ryan Gosling’s similarly inert characters in Drive and 2013’s Only God Forgives.
Martin’s only discernible personality trait is his propensity for spitting on the ground, and there’s nothing in these two episodes to indicate why he became a killer or how he feels about it (aside from his apparent aversion to killing someone solely for being in debt). Other characters are equally inscrutable, although none of them spend enough time on-screen to make a real impression. Hawkes has been billed as the series’ main supporting actor, but he only appears in one of these two episodes.
Brubaker crafts grounded, fully realized characters in his crime comics. In its basic outline, the concept of Too Old to Die Young sounds like something he would excel at writing. But there’s nothing resembling the layered character building of Criminal or The Fade Out in Too Old to Die Young, and most scenes feature extremely sparse dialogue surrounded by very long silences. If you cut out all the pregnant pauses, the episodes would probably run half as long.
Of course, Brubaker also wrote for Westworld, so he’s probably familiar with portentous, meaningless pronouncements. Too Old to Die Young is full of inexplicable scenes, including Martin’s colleagues at the Sheriff’s Department chanting about fascism and listening to a ukulele song about Jesus at a staff meeting. One of Martin’s targets hoses down a near-naked woman before slicing off her lingerie and then painting her toenails. Will any of this make sense to viewers who’ve seen the first three episodes, or who later watch the rest of the season? Maybe, but given Refn’s track record, it’s just as likely that the characters’ actions will remain opaque and mysterious.
The deficiencies (or deliberate omissions) in plot and character would be more forgivable if Refn’s style were more engaging, but Too Old to Die Young recycles most of the techniques he’s used in his last few films, from the neon color palette to the icy synth score by Cliff Martinez to the jarring moments of ultraviolence. The cinematography by Darius Khondiji is so dark in some scenes that it’s tough to make out what’s going on. Word is that the episodes average 90 minutes each, with some running close to two hours, and it’s hard not to see these bloated, feature-length fragments as self-indulgent and solipsistic. Given an entire season to play with, Refn has gotten lost in his own stylistic excesses.
The first season of Too Old to Die Young, starring Miles Teller, John Hawkes, Jena Malone, Nell Tiger Free and Augusto Aguilera, debuts June 14 on Amazon Prime Video.