There’s no question that Nicolas Winding Refn’s Amazon Prime series Too Old To Die Young is beautifully crafted. Each shot is considered and deliberately composed in such a way as to make describing the series as “painterly” necessary. The attention Refn and his cinematographers Darius Khondji and Diego Garcia pay to every shot is obvious and the results are there on screen, particularly during the many languid takes in which characters like Miles Teller’s existentially nonplussed detective/hitman Martin Jones, or Augusto Aguilera’s American-born cartel lieutenant Jesus stare passively into the middle distance for so long it nears absurdity. But that’s part and parcel to the series Refn has created along with comics scribe (and Westworld writer) Ed Brubaker: an ultra-seedy Los Angeles noir that often borders on abstraction.
To say Too Old To Die Young leans hard into abstraction is almost an understatement. The series doesn’t so much have a plot or an overarching story — at least in the first four episodes, anyway — as it has a surfeit of ideas, most of which have to do with power and violence, particularly who wields it and who suffers its inflictions. The first episode, ‘Volume One: The Devil,’ explores the hierarchies of the world Refn and Brubaker have created, spending an inordinate amount of time with two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies — Teller’s Martin and his partner Larry (Lance Gross) — as they shake down a young woman for a few hundred dollars in exchange for letting her off without a ticket. The opening sequence quickly (well, not quickly) delineates the moral line behind which these two cops stand, and no sooner is the shakedown complete, than Larry gets gunned down by Jesus, as retribution for the cop killing his mother.
The first two episodes (which, remember, take up about three hours) essentially work to introduce Martin and Jesus, positioning them not so much against one another, but as illustrations of the series' interest in disengagement. That detachment is more or less the calling card of Too Old To Die Young, which withholds any sense of interiority of its characters from those watching. Martin responds to his dealings with a criminal organization led by Babs Olusanmokun’s Damian with the same passive remove as he does his underage girlfriend, Janey (Nell Tiger Free), and her coked-up venture capitalist father played by William Baldwin. Jesus is much the same, after seeking vengeance for his mother’s killing, he takes up with his ailing uncle, the head of a powerful Mexican cartel, as well as his violence-prone cousin, Miguel (Robert Aguire).
The first three hours are a blend of stylized violence and languid, dreamlike filmmaking that will be hypnotic to some and taxing for others. But, in its third episode, Too Old To Die Young introduces two of its more interesting characters, the low-rent hitman, Viggo (John Hawkes), and his boss Diana (Jena Malone), after a contract killing on a child molester goes awry. Though the series doesn’t outright say it, there’s a hint of a moral compass present in their actions, and the manner in which they regard one another brings a necessary level of humanity to the series’ otherwise barren narrative landscape. The same is true of Martin’s workplace, now that he’s been promoted to detective, and working under a new Lieutenant played by Hart Bochner, a jolly, encouraging cop who gently scolds another detective for doodling inappropriate pictures on a piece of scrap paper during working hours.
If nothing else, the third episode is evidence of Refn and Brubaker rolling down the windows and letting some air in. It’s a break from the slower machinations of Refn’s particular storytelling apparatus, and it hints at the show’s interest to allow the audience into the minds of some characters, even as it keeps Martin and Jesus (and others) at arm’s length. But the change-up doesn’t alter Refn’s approach to filmmaking; he continues to indulge in long tracking shots and in having Teller stare into the middle distance, dead-eyed and silent, for approximately five seconds before responding to what another character said. In other words, while it feels as though Too Old To Die Young is creeping up on a more traditional style of storytelling, Refn is there to assure those watching that Refn is going to Refn no matter what.
In its own way, Too Old To Die Young is an admirable bit of television making. It’s beautiful and brilliant at times, but it’s also frequently vexing and, for some, it will be exasperating. (If you didn’t find Twin Peaks: The Return to be your cup of tea, this certainly won’t be.) But it also feels deliberate in its attempt to antagonize, which is admirable in its own way, too. In that sense, the series is akin to Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, as it seemingly exists to please the filmmaker first and (some of) the audience second. Nevertheless, the series deserves to be watched and talked about, and while there’s some question as to who will do the first part, those that do will certainly take part in the second.
Too Old To Die Young season 1 is currently streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.