Cannes 2019: Too Old to Die Young
Nicolas Winding Refn, undeterred by Cannes’ apparent attempts to undermine the rise of streaming, has brought two episodes of his upcoming Too Old to Die Young (Amazon Prime, from 14th June) to the Croisette, screening out of competition. The ad-hoc movie, titled North of Hollywood, West of Hell, combines episodes 4 and 5 (not 1 and 2) together to form a sort of feature in limbo – coming from somewhere as yet unknown and going somewhere uncertain. Although it’s obviously difficult to make generalisations about a 10-episode television show from a fifth of the content, Too Old to Die Young looks set to be Refn at his most Refn – at his most narcissistic, violent, indulgent, stylish, and controversial. You already know if you’ll be into it or not.
The two episodes we were exposed to seem to form a sort of transition between story arcs. In the first, we meet Miles Teller’s Martin, a murderous detective in a sort of post-apocalyptic-but-still-looking-like-today Los Angeles who’s disillusioned with the idiocy of his fellow colleagues. In his spare time, he receives tip-offs about serious criminals (the episodes feature an alarming amount of sexual violence, although it’s most often discussed rather than shown) from various unsavoury sources and tracks them down with former fellow soldier Viggo (John Hawks), before brutally executing them. The main conflict of the episode is the moral murkiness surrounding the misdeeds of one particular victim, and the reluctance of Martin’s boss to explain exactly what he’s done wrong. It also establishes, although fleetingly (one assumes this is covered more in the first episodes) that there is a supernatural element to Too Old to Die Young. Jenna Malone’s character, who we see briefly, uses some sort of occult crystal board to determine the identity of criminals to be taken out.
Although this first episode is ultra-stylish and, yes, violent, I couldn’t help feeling that it was just ‘good’ – nothing really major seems to happen, there’s a bit of silliness involving katanas, and it felt more like a filler episode than a major outing. The second episode, however, is far more successful. A queasy, nightmarish trip of a noir, it follows Martin as he tracks down two pornographers who film and orchestrate genuine rapes in order to sell them as pornography, and ends up deciding to play with his food rather than offing it quickly. In the isolation of the desert, through neon-chiaroscuro roadside dive bars and warehouses filled with porn sets, the camera traces the ever-escalating situation until it reaches breaking point. The episode climaxes in a thrilling car chase through the wilderness that lasts an entire night.
In this show, more so than ever, Refn’s actors feel like they’re robots emulating humans more so than the flesh-and-blood real deal. Miles Teller puts on a brilliant performance, although comparisons are sure to be made with Gosling’s similar work in Drive and Only God Forgives. Martin’s character is certainly going to take some explaining – his muted, almost sociopathic (maybe that’s just because Teller is no Gosling) air stands in direct contrast to the babbling cops all around him – we don’t even see a facial expression resembling something classifiable as ‘emotion’. With Drive, it felt like a powerhouse performance, now it feels more like a stylistic quirk – something akin to Lanthimos’s deadpan delivery.
More so than ever, too, the sadism is quasi-pornographic and the content nothing more than high-class modern exploitation. The neon is more neon than ever, the colour palette the most diverse its been, and the score more effervescent than Martinez’s other stellar work with the Danish director. The violence is more violent, the depravity more depraved, and the tone more dismal. The smooth gloss of some of Refn’s other work is replaced with a beautiful high-class film grain – one that allows the image to straddle the line between Too Old to Die Young’s hyper-modern ultraviolence and the 70’s exploitation that lies at its heart. If there’s a deeper theme or ‘point’, it’s missing.
There’s also a stark influence coming from Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Like that show, the action will occasionally flit from pitch darkness to bizarre, surreally comedic vignettes – something that Refn hasn’t dabbled in before. But although both can be funny, Lynch projects a certain warmth and adoration for his characters that Refn never does. If we laugh, we’re laughing at, rather than with.
This is a cold, clinical, unwaveringly nihilistic vision of humanity that leaves no room for hope or happiness. The laughs make you choke. Even as Martin, in his own way, defends the innocent and even rescues a prisoner in episode 5, he admits he’s doing it for the blood. He seems possessed by a desire for righteousness without ever understanding or believing in righteousness – it’s an intrinsic idea that’s unconsciously followed. In Refn’s vision, society has gone to shit, and these killings are simply an attempt at fighting the chaos.
It remains to be seen just what the Danish director is aiming for with Too Old to Die Young, but from these two episodes it looks like the final product is going to be something awesome to behold. Due to its pace, perhaps not one to binge-watch, but one to savor like a fine wine. As I say, you already know if you’re into it or not. For now, I’m confident. Remind me of that if it turns out to be shit.