Amazon's Too Old to Die Young Season 1 Review

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Like being driven around in a supercar at 20 mph, thinking you'll at least go somewhere nice, only to end up right back at home, and realise that your driver thinks she's a witch

by Casimir Harlow Jun 17, 2019 at 8:08 AM

  • Directed by Drive's Nicolas Winding Refn, co-written by Winter Soldier's Ed Brubaker, scored by Cliff Martinez, and every bit as dark, stylish, and painfully indulgent as you would expect.

    Nicolas Winding Refn has only written and directed a handful of films, graduating to English-language features with Tom Hardy's Bronson and Mads Mikkelsen's Valhalla Rising, before making his best feature, Drive, catapulting star Ryan Gosling into the limelight of pure cool, and earning instant cult status. His works since (Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon), however, have been compelling but flawed studies of corruption and violence, which often threaten to buckle under the weight of thinly drawn characters and a sense of Refn being increasingly enamoured by style, only now possibly at the expense of substance. Mood pieces in the extreme, could he have peaked with Drive?

    With only 10 titles to his resume, Refn has somehow managed to deliver a TV show which - at some 900 minutes in duration - single-handedly competes with the entirety of his filmography, at least in terms of sheer duration. The real question is, does it play out like 10 episodes of Drive, or is it more like watching Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon back to back at half speed?

    Refn is swiftly becoming the Malick of dark modern noir

    The multi-angle story follows a number of different characters in the aftermath of a murder, with Miles Teller's corrupt cop finding himself increasingly drowning in the crime world he's been touched by, whilst murderer Augusto Aguilera (The Predator) goes into hiding at the villa of his uncle, the head of a Mexican Cartel, forming a bond with Cristina Rodlo's femme fatale. The appearance of John Hawkes' ex-FBI justice-exacting hitman - who works for Jena Malone's victims counsellor - gives the cop some manner of direction, as does his relationship with the 17 year old daughter (Nell Tiger Free - Game of Thrones) of William Baldwin's millionaire, eventually choosing his own path, which is not without its own fair share of blood, particularly when a multicultural three-way gang war appears to be building on the horizon.

    Too Old to Die Young (2019)
    Too Old to Die Young certainly has a great cast, relying on a Refn-standard stoic performance from the ostensible lead character played by Miles Teller (who plays it closer to Gosling than his own work, like Whiplash, even if his spitting gets irritating really quickly), as well as typically mysterious support from Jena Malone (who has just been transposed from The Neon Demon - and Refn still can't write roles for women, other than as literal or metaphorical sex slaves; he should know by now that simply making them witches is a cop-out), a rare decent-ish turn from Backdraft's lesser Baldwin brother, William (who now sounds like Alec) and some unsurprisingly scene-stealing work from the supremely underrated John Hawkes (Deadwood, Small Town Crime) who unfortunately doesn't get anywhere near enough screentime. It also expands out to spend plenty of time across the border with a Mexican cast, and - later - briefly injects some Korean Yakuza into the bargain, as well as a bunch of cowboy male rapists.

    The characters are fairly well-developed over the course of the season, but not necessarily served well, with Refn playing out some expansive arcs which go hard at the lower end of the greyscale, wallowing in almost insurmountable darkness for the most part, and giving some of them only intermittent (and often quickly dashed) glimmers of hope as they go from one horror to the next. Unfortunately, Refn goes to 11 in the indulgence department, which may see plenty jumping off this project even before it gets started (which is really 3-4 hours into its whopping 15 hour runtime).

    There is a reason why he previewed episodes 4 and 5 at Cannes, and not simply the first two episodes. Episode 5 is really the earliest point where anything significant happens, before the second half of the season teases a barely existent gang war which was a long time building to nothing, and before the show completely flames out with a random supernatural thread that makes no sense whatsoever. Along the way Refn takes scene-setting to the extreme, holding on shots for about a minute too long each, and leaving basically everything up for slo-mo pans. For no apparent reason other than... Refn.

    Every frame is perfect, but the pacing just destroys you

    This is the most visually opulent production you will likely ever see - frequently jaw-dropping - trading in those quintessential Refn pearlescent purples, pinks, greens and blues, which cast almost every single scene in an artificial, highly stylised light, whilst longterm collaborator Cliff Martinez delivers an equally stunning score, coming together (in suitably impressive 4K UHD with eye-popping HDR usage - if you search for the 4K version) to provide an audiovisual experience unlike almost any other TV show.

    But it sometimes feels like elaborate smoke and mirrors - a glorified, exquisitely framed, picture-perfect music video - particularly when, for the fifteenth time, you're watching a profile shot of someone sitting in a car not doing anything, or people in a nightclub not doing anything. There are scenes where somebody starts walking slowly up the stairs and you could literally go and make a cup of coffee and return before they'd even reached the top. Exchanges of just a couple of lines of dialogue take painful minutes to evolve. For no apparent reason other than... Refn.

    Too Old to Die Young (2019)
    Refn is swiftly becoming the Malick of dark modern noir, which isn't a compliment when we are talking more Song to Song Malick than Thin Red Line Malick, seemingly more intent on fuelling his own extreme indulgences (he returns to unnecessary oedipal tendencies, and his treatment of women feels particularly tired, especially when things like the male rape setup are much more effective and only diminished by a fetishistic observation of naked women cleaned up and painted like dolls) rather than actually crafting something people would be interested to stick with.

    It is telling that he has reportedly championed the benefits of the long form narrative which the TV show format allows for as, whilst he clearly uses said benefits to craft a richer and more considered narrative and better defined characters, he also takes it to the extreme, turning in unprecedented 90 minute-long episodes which are at least 30 minutes too long each. Every frame is perfect, but the pacing just destroys you.

    The narrative, co-written by Ed Brubaker (who wrote the seminal comic arc that would form the backbone to one of the best MCU movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) buckles under the weight of 15 hours of runtime, with vast swathes utterly devoid of dialogue, and not enough going on to either carry you through on built-up tension or keep you involved through strong characterisation. It's basically like everybody is moving at Sloth-speed... for no apparent reason whatsoever other than... well... Refn.

    A good editor might have made something out of this indulgent opus, rather than the flawed but uniquely stylised endurance test that it is

    Still, Refn hardcore purists will relish the opportunity to watch 15 hours of this extremely stylish auteur at work (basically like watching his entire filmography back-to-back, only here at half speed). It is likely unlike anything else you have ever seen before, and it has enough sheer visual wonder and aural majesty to stand apart, although the pacing leaves the style over substance element affording distinctly diminishing returns (where, say, The Neon Demon got away with enjoying merely the benefits of its style with a sub-2 hour runtime). A good editor might have made something approaching excellence out of this indulgent opus, rather than the distinctly flawed, deeply frustrating but uniquely stylised endurance test that it is, and it will be interesting to see just how many people make it across the finish line.

    For those that do, it may feel a little bit like being driven around for hours in a million-dollar supercar at 20 mph, under the belief that you'll at least go somewhere nice, only to end up right back at home, and realise that your driver thinks she's a witch.

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