'Too Old to Die Young': TV Review | Cannes 2019
Miles Teller is a Los Angeles cop leading a double-life as a contract killer who comes under the sway of John Hawkes' apocalyptic visionary in Nicolas Winding Refn's Amazon crime series.
There's a superb pitch-dark comedy on TV about an introspective hitman having an existential crisis. It's called Barry and is anchored by a richly nuanced characterization from Bill Hader. Miles Teller, looking chiseled and mean in a million variations on chiaroscuro lighting with a neon tinge, travels a similar path down a much nastier neo-noir road, without the humor, in Nicolas Winding Refn's stylishly crafted but stultifyingly dull limited series for Amazon, Too Old to Die Young.
The Danish director made the odd choice to show only episodes 4 and 5 in Cannes, where he has been a regular since 2011's Drive. Whether the earlier chapters will offer a more persuasive hook when the series begins streaming on June 14 is anyone's guess, but on the wildly self-indulgent evidence presented here, that looks doubtful. What seems abundantly clear, however, is that Refn's steady slide deeper and deeper into empty genre posturing following the critical and commercial success of the electrifying Drive seems to have gone as far as it can go. The ostentatious display of bad-boy nihilism is made more toxic by a possessory credit slapped up front that is now a hashtag: #byNWR.
This is a guy with visual talent to burn, his impeccable eye for framing and composition, and his luscious appreciation for color aided here by the razor-sharp work of ace cinematographers Darius Khondji and Diego Garcia, plus the consistently arresting production design of Tom Foden. Few filmmakers can stage nighttime action with the glossy grit and texture that Refn consistently serves up, and his use of music — by turns brooding and propulsive, honed over repeat collaborations with synth genius Cliff Martinez — is exemplary.
The director's provocative presentation of violence as an inextricable part of the human condition in the head-turning Pusher trilogy, set in the Copenhagen criminal underworld, helped put him on the map. And in movies like the punchy 2008 Tom Hardy vehicle, Bronson, the brutality was thrillingly operatic. But Refn appears to have lost all interest in character. Teller's LAPD Detective Martin Jones is so dourly taciturn he makes Ryan Gosling's unnamed protagonist in Drive seem almost verbose and happy-go-lucky. The unsettling seduction scene that opens episode 4 shows promise, and at that stage you're still mildly intoxicated by the cool visuals. But the flat quality of the mostly affectless performances wears thin fast.
Each episode of the series varies in length, apparently averaging 90 minutes, with some closer to an hour and others nearer two. The double sampler premiering in Cannes runs a combined two-hours-20, and the unorthodox starting point makes sense in that Martin by episode 4 has encountered the formative influence who redirects his future actions, sinister ex-FBI agent Viggo (John Hawkes).
In the script written by Refn with series co-creator Ed Brubaker, what might have been woven in as subtext by another filmmaker instead is spelled out in a thematic information dump. "When America falls, we are headed back to the Dark Ages… surrounded by a sea of barbarian hordes," we are warned. Viggo goes on to reflect on man's neglect of his violent nature even as it continues to lie dormant, while we have become slaves to a system now falling apart. "As the world fractures, someone has to be there to protect innocence," he intones.
Martin buys what Viggo is preaching, even learning by example as he watches him swiftly dispose, via some handy knife-work, of a cop from a PTSD therapy group, a man he claims has been raping his own daughter for years and threatening to murder her mother if she talks. Viggo receives target guidance from Diana (Jena Malone), a mystic who reads stones to divine details of criminal degenerates. But Martin has his own methods, leading him to a pair of alt-right New Mexico sibling pornographers (James Urbaniak, Brad Hunt) who specialize in rape films.
The second episode shown in Cannes unfolds in and around Albuquerque and reveals that Refn doesn't discriminate when it comes to subjecting women and men — or at least one young gay man — to humiliating degradation and sexual violence. That it's more often discussed or implied than directly shown doesn't make it any less creepy. But much of the truly unpleasant stuff mines a sub-Tarantino vein without the sly wit, and it feels like we've been down this exploitation road a few too many times, right down to the menacing den of urban samurais and the ironic use of cheesy pop — in this case, Barry Manilow's "Mandy."
What's more problematic though is the pacing. Refn seems to luxuriate in the opportunity of having ten elastic episodes to tease out vignettes into mini-epics, just because he can, and the slow, emotionless delivery of almost every line of dialogue becomes increasingly monotonous. This kind of thing can work to some degree in a darkened movie theater where your audience is more or less captive. But it's hard to imagine viewers not getting an itchy remote finger at home as scenes drone on and on without much variation in tone. By the time the New Mexico episode builds to an all-night desert car chase, the effectiveness of that amusing extended action set-piece has been diminished by too much numbing preamble.
In addition to Viggo and Diana, the other characters encountered so far who seem significant are Janey (Nell Tiger Free), the precociously intelligent high school senior who has a thing going on with Martin; her doting billionaire dad (William Baldwin); and Damian (Babs Olusanmokun), a criminal who avails himself of Martin’s services and for now appears happy enough to switch gears and provide him with the names of lowlifes to eliminate, just for blood, not money.
Press notes indicate that a budding San Fernando Valley drug kingpin, Jesus (Augusto Aguillera), will figure prominently, though the character was not a part of the two episodes shown. In any case, Jesus had better be some kind of savior if Too Old to Die Young is going to be more than just a ponderously portentous sleazefest shaken out of its torpor by the occasional bloodbath.
Cast: Miles Teller, John Hawkes, Jena Malone, Augusto Aguilera, Nell Tiger Free, Babs Olusanmokum, William Baldwin, Hart Bochner, Celestino Corneille, Cristina Rodlo
Production company: Amazon Studios
Creators: Nicolas Winding Refn, Ed Brubaker
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Producers: Rachel Dik, Alexander H. Gayner
Executive producers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Ed Brubaker, Joe Lewis, Jeffrey Stott
Director of photography: Darius Khondji, Diego Garcia
Production designer: Tom Foden
Costume designer: Jennifer Johnson
Music: Cliff Martinez
Editors: Annie Giudice, Matthew Newman
Casting: Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Premieres June 14, Amazon Prime