US | 2019 | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Logline: As an L.A. police officer becomes embroiled in a turf war between the Mexican cartel and local gangsters, his own, already compromised, moral compass becomes increasingly twisted.
We open on Martin Jones (Miles Teller), a sheriff deputy (and later detective), and his partner, in the neon glow of a desolate and ominous City of Angels. These men are bored, and they indulge their power in inappropriate ways. A Latino thug executes the partner in cold blood, and Jones soon enough finds himself neck high in a case of corruption and murder. The deeper he dives into the black waters the colder his world becomes. Not even the soft cosy embrace of his teenage lover can warm the cockles of his icy soul. He is suffering an existential crisis that not even he is aware of.
Let the cards fall as they may.
Nicolas Winding Refn and co-creator and co-writer Ed Brubaker have fashioned one of the most gorgeous looking shows to ever grace the small screen. It’s in a league of its own. A sumptuous, slow burn crime thriller that refuses to play by the rules, yet wears its influences like flair adorning a uniform. It’s a series (listed as the first season), but was shot as a marathon-length feature production (a staggering 751 minutes in duration!) One very long, drawn out quest sectioned into ten, mostly feature-length episodes which the creators are calling “volumes” (like chapters in a novel), and delivered with the kind of stylistic indulgence that would make free-to-air prime time programmers weep in despair.
This is Neo-Noir (yup, in capitals) and takes no prisoners. Well, actually, it does. The audience. We are held hostage from the moment the camera languidly pans across the police officers standing posed by their patrol car, slowly sweeps across the street, past a blitzed-out motel, in the background a night time of demons and infidels coiled in disguise. Refn is all about the tableaux. It feels as if he has been waiting his entire career to make something this delicate and nuanced, as protracted and in the moment. Netflix has provided him the perfect platform, and he has embraced the streaming concept like a hug from a bear on opiates.
To refer to this show as Lynchian would be an understatement. The influences of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive are embedded deep. The lush aesthetics, the religious iconography, the surreal edges. It’s deeply sensual, perversely sexual, then blackly comic, ultraviolent, absurd and unshakeably strange. A labyrinthine realm of sordid darkness seething just below the chrome sheen of the urban world, north of Hollywood, west of Hell. A snake pit of pedophilia, torture and execution, where drugs and money feed greedy mouths. Sister Fate is a harsh and inhumane mistress.
Action speaks louder than words, and dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum, with the kind of pregnant pauses between lines that would arouse the most jaded Beckett enthusiasts. Music throbs and sound pulsates throughout. Composer Cliff Martinez is at the top of his game, but Refn curates some choice source music as well, again, very much on the Lynchian tip, especially in one cartel live band scene late in the season. The superb cinematography is courtesy of a master of light and shade and colour; Darius Khondji, with a couple of episodes shot by the equally talentedDiego Garcia.
On the surface Too Old to Die Young is a study of morality and corruption, with the threat of violence lingering constantly, lashing out to spectacular Scorsese effect. Refn is no stranger to screen violence. Like Tarantino he adores it with a fetishist’s command. And like Tarantino and Scorsese, Refn has always been a dab hand at casting. He keeps Teller in permanent check, has John Hawkes on the back foot, gives Jena Malone one of the best roles of her career, allows Billy Baldwin to snort like a pig and chew the scenery, and introduces us to several striking and charismatic new faces, chiefly, Nell Tiger Free as Jones’ adolescent lover Janey, Augusto Aguilera as Jesus, the Mexican prodigal son, and Cristina Rodlo as Yaritza, quiet and alluring, and, hush hush, High Priestess of Death.
Refn and Brubaker have named all the episodes/volumes after Tarot cards, and if you are familiar with cartomancy you’ll be able to read into each episode the respective fortune, or misfortune, a complex subtext. “The Devil”, “The Lovers”, “The Hermit”, “The Tower”, “The Fool”, “The High Priestess”, “The Magician”, “The Hanged Man”, “The Empress”, and “The World”. Themes of ritualism, fascism, narcissism, and nihilism all merge, along with all the rich symbolism, an uneasy eroticism, and even touches of magic realism.
Too Old to Die Young does not suffer fools gladly, nor does it pander to any kind of easy solution. It culminates in a denouement as rewarding as it is punishing. A circle of pain and suffering, sex and death, of resignation and inevitability. Gratification and frustration in equal measure. To some it will be the ultimate display of pretentiousness, of style over substance, to others a master class in mood, tone, and allegory, of style as substance.
During the final three episodes (the last two co-written by Refn and Halley Gross) the narrative arcs of its central characters twist and curl, some into a tightened screw, others fraying like ruined rope. Please, for the love of God and the Devil, let Refn and Brubaker make a second season, so that we can continue on the tenebrous journey of the show’s true protagonist/antagonist. A journey so exotic and compelling under it’s mesmerising dream/nightmare shroud, yet we were delivered an ending so abrupt - it felt severed.
“Our identities will be defined by the pain we cause.”