Nicolas Winding Refn is an aesthete; his films vacuous yet gorgeous, replete with all kinds of technical bravado, sly camera movements, images that glisten, over-saturated colors, aphotic darkness, and thrumming music. He’s as philosophical as the college sophomore who just discovered Heidegger (which makes him smarter than the student who just discovered Kant, natch). But his craftsmanship! As Nietzsche said, “All of life is a dispute over taste,” and Refn (or NWR—his directorial credit reads, #ByNWR) certainly isn’t for everybody. His new Amazon show, Too Old to Die Young, is glacial and gaudy, repetitive, a shiny, neon-sodden traipse into an ugly underworld set to an anxious, irascible electronic score and digitally photographed so assiduously, so obsessively, with its slow zooms and precise pans and persnickety compositions that look like modern art installations, anyone who doesn’t nerd out over that kind of stuff will probably find the series insufferable. Characters? Plot? Politics? Hah. This is braggadocio filmmaking, stupid and sublime.
The first 90-minute episode unfurls languorously, with deliberation. One of the earliest shots of the series shows a man’s visage enshrouded by shadows behind the windshield of a sports car, the focus shallow with streaks of light glinting on the glass, and the camera pulls back slowly so the face goes blurry and its reflection on the hood of the car comes into focus before the camera pans all the way around and rack focus, settling on two uniformed police officers across the street. This is the most dexterous filmmaking on a TV/streaming series since Twin Peaks: the Return—though Refn doesn’t even pretend to peddle in Lynch’s dense metaphysical symbolism; this is a show that luxuriates in surface-level pleasures, a show whose style is its substance. In the second episode, there’s a nearly 10-minute shot of people talking, the camera panning, the characters obfuscated or out of the frame. For as much as Refn shows, he also opts to not show a lot. If the violence on-screen is unrepentant and off-putting, imagine what goes in such a world off-screen.
Corrupt police officer Martin (Miles Teller) witnesses his corrupt partner get murdered, and is consequently sucked into a maelstrom of violence and perfidy where everyone is awful. It’s a diverse underworld. There’s a Mexican cartel (they have a soccer team), a predominantly black crime organization, and all sorts of malefactors and delinquents of varying kinds of nefarious. Martin is sleeping with a 17-year-old high school student (Nell Tiger Free) whose father (William Baldwin) is a sleazy, iniquitous billionaire who runs a hedge fund that “buys and sells shit.” He seems to have post-nasal drip or something, he’s always clearing his throat. Or maybe he’s one of the myriad characters with a penchant for blow—characters are always ripping lines or doing bumps, which belies the show’s languor. One character who meets an early demise sells out Miles and his partner in order to obtain more cocaine, while later, Jesus (Augusto Aguiera) and his cousin, in spectacular slow-motion, bathe in the white powder, spreading it across their faces, pouring it over their heads.
Jesus, a young American member of the Mexican cartel, is the other main character. He’s the one who killed Martin’s partner. (His mother was murdered by Martin and his late partner.) Though Jesus is slightly less abominable than his cousin (the new Don of the cartel, a lanky, coke-addicted psycho who abducts women for a prostitution ring), the second episode ends with the chisel-jawed Mexican-American assassinating an entire police squadron, one by one. The series is almost entirely devoid of any redeemable characters, though there is Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo), the Supreme Angel of Death, who is surreptitiously saving the women and killing the cartel’s men.
As the season goes on, the story does become more complicated, and characters do have arcs (which slowly, slowly take shape). Viggo (John Hawkes), a former FBI agent who now kills pedophiles, is in a sense Martin’s foil. Hawkes gives the most vulnerable performance in the series, emotional whereas almost everyone else is icy and soporific. But instead of seeming out of place, he adds a subtle pang of intensity and uncertainty—he is the closest thing the show has to a moral center. “I just felt empty,” Martin says, telling Viggo about a mother he just killed. “Is that how you feel?” “No,” Viggo says, his gaunt face grim. There are varieties, gradations of killers. Jenna Malone, who worked with Refn on The Neon Demon (2016), goes for something campier, playing a handler who also works as a psychic healer. Created by Refn and comic book writer Ed Brubaker, Too Old to Die Young is a strange kind of ridiculous, hyperbolically staid; everyone’s movements are as stoical and deliberate as a mannequin's. No one smiles. No one fidgets. The camera glides while characters sit still in nightclubs, the stroboscopic lights washing over the static bodies while Cliff Martinez’s fusillade of synth notes whizz by. This is a post-human narrative. A mother answers her son by saying, “What is it, my son?” without inflection or emotion. When someone is asked a question, they wait for one or two beats too long before answering with something terse, like, “Okay.”
But no one watches Refn’s films for the story or characters. Like Refn’s unlikely hit Drive (2011) or the phantasmagoric, phallogocentric fever dream Only God Forgives (2013), Too Old to Die Young is dominated by high-contrast lighting and red-blue colors (Refn is colorblind and prefers a stark color and simple color palette). The series was shot by Darius Khondji, who also filmed David Fincher’s tenebrous, lurid thriller Se7en and James Gray’s The Immigrant, shooting both on 35mm, his luminescence, texture, and inky shadows for those pictures recalling the 1970s work of Gordon Willis. Khondji’s images on Too Old to Die Young are more caliginous, smooth and slick; they appear with the unquietness of a delusion. Here, Khondji uses the nocturnal capabilities of digital to douse the screen with impermeable blacks and monochrome colors. A simple dialogue scene uses chiaroscuro lighting and deep blues, for example, to exude an airless, disquieting atmosphere, while an early scene of violence is steeped in reds, the screen piebald with shadows. A Mexican police station is gangrenous, the lights jaundiced. A woman looking at her reflection is garbed in crimson moments before having her head blown off. Scenes can go on for an uncomfortable amount of time—Refn’s longtime editor Matthew Newman doesn't cut very often, though when he does he favors jarring juxtapositions. Too Old to Die Young can seem sophomoric in its nihilistic musings, but it almost doesn't matter because the filmmaking is hypnotic, so assured, like nothing else on television since Hannibal was canceled; and, like that spectacularly saturnine show, Too Old revels in the glory of digital filmmaking, the long, leisurely pacing of television, trusting viewers to stick it out for the whole thing. Refn's films, like dreams, tend to linger, even for people who despise them.