Pop Culturing: Nicolas Winding Refn's 'Too Old to Die Young' Series is Neo-Noir at its Neo-Noirest

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Wednesday June 19, 2019

Miles Teller, left, in a scene from "Too Old to Die Young."
Miles Teller, left, in a scene from "Too Old to Die Young."  (Source:Courtesy of Amazon)

Over the last decade, director Nicolas Winding Refn rose to prominence for his neon-lit and ultraviolent films, including his 2011 breakout Ryan Gosling starrer "Drive," the 2013 revenge thriller and second Gosling picture "Only God Forgives" and the 2016 twisted fashion satire "The Neon Demon" starring Elle Fanning. Over and over again, Refn proved he has a knack for making moody and electrifying genre films while putting A-list talent in roles unlike anything they've done before. Sometimes his work was both incredibly proactive and entertaining ("Drive") while others were a big bust ("Only Good Forgives").

The Danish filmmaker is the latest auteur to head to the small screen and bring their idiosyncratic vision to a streaming platform. He may not view it as a TV show, (he's calling it a 13-hour movie *cough* David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: The Return" *cough*), but Refn's "Too Old to Die Young," which begins Friday on Amazon, is a wild 10-episode neo-noir series set in Los Angeles that stars Miles Teller and pushes the genre to its limits. Like when it first debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last month, only episodes four and five were made available for review and packaged as "Too Old to Die Young: North of Hollywood, West of Hell." Incredible name aside, only sharing a sample from the middle section of your TV show (or movie!) is a troll movie — something that shouldn't come as a huge surprise when it comes to Refn.

Jumping into the middle of a story isn't an ideal way to watch or understand art but the glimpse of "TOTDY" is not as disjointing as one might think. The episodes offer a compelling taste of the miniseries, showcasing Refn's signature stylized flourishes. With just hypnotic a peek, it's hard to tell what the whole picture really is, but the episodes feel contained enough to stand alone. Nevertheless, the show ought to as polarizing as any of his recent films.

Miles Teller in a scene from "Too Old to Die Young." Photo credit: Courtesy of Amazon

Teller plays Martin, an L.A. cop (who loves to spit) by day and moralistic vigilante by night. Working with his pal Viggo (John Hawkes) he's assigned to kill the worst men imaginable (criminals, child rapists and the like) by working for shadowy figures in the city's underbelly. He's not killing for a paycheck — he flat-out refuses to be paid for his actions — he's in this violent business to scrub the world clean of filthy, depraved men. Martin's conviction is so strong that at one point he refuses to kill a man he's been hired to snuff out when he learns his crime is not paying $8,000 to a mob boss.

There are only a few other current filmmakers as divisive as Refn; some critics thoroughly enjoy his hellscape vision in his films while others find he puts style over substance. "TOTDY" won't change your opinion on how you feel about his work. Refn's take on a TV show is a self-indulgent nihilistic exercise that is full of irony and humor (the show's title alone should be a giveaway for the tone he's looking to strike and it should be noted Refn co-wrote the series with comic book writer Ed Brubaker). It's also the filmmaker doing some of his greatest hits (at least in episodes four and five). Fans will see moments that nod to "Drive," "Only God Forgives, "The Neon Demon" and even "Hellboy."

"TOTDY" is Refn doing neo-noir dialed up to 11, giving even the most brooding moments of any "True Detective" season a run for its money. There are bursts of hyper-violence (gunshots have never sounded this loud), monologues about the fall of mankind that are delivered high on a Hollywood hill, and pregnant pauses between lines of dialogue that are so long it feels like you could clean your bathroom and return before someone else is starts speaking. "TOTDY" is so hardboiled you'd break your teeth on it.

Jena Malone, left, and John Hawkes, right, in the trailer for "Too Old to Die Young." Photo credit: YouTube still via Amazon

Despite the show's self-awareness and meta-ness, "TOTDY" makes for some fantastic top-of-the-year TV moments, including all-night car chase involving a tiny electric Fiat and a slick red (American made!) convertible from Albuquerque, New Mexico and into the desert soundtracked by Barry Manilow's "Mandy." Elsewhere, Martin tracks down two brothers who are porn producers but are notorious for filming scenes you won't see anywhere else but the dark web. The fifth episode opens with one of the brothers, played by James Urbaniak ("Difficult People" fans will never see Arthur the same again!), interviewing and boy who just turned 18, saying the vilest things imaginable before he forces him to take a pill before recording.

With music by Cliff Martinez, a Refn staple, and a cast rounded out with the wonderful Jenna Malone, William Baldwin and many more, "TOTDY" is Refn giving into all of his tendencies — for better or for worse. His foray into TV is an ultraviolent, slow-as-molasses neo-noir that hums with apocalyptic dread. It's the perfect show for 2019 — or at least the one we all deserve.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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