The advent of streaming platforms has allowed for experimentation in episodic content in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago. Recently, Netflix released a number of series constituted of just 15-minute episodes as well as a choose your own adventure movie in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Auteur filmmakers such as David Fincher, Spike Lee and Jane Champion, who had barely dabbled in narrative television previously have brought their talents to what has been dubbed the era of Peak TV. Now, after two years of production and editing, Nicolas Winding Refn premiered two episodes of his new Prime Video series Too Old To Die Young at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. The 13-hour film, as Refn refers to it, is ambitious, it is at times brilliant, but it will absolutely test the limits of what even the most artistically open-minded viewers can embrace on the small screen.
Instead of beginning with the first two hours of the series, Refn decided to present the fourth and fifth episodes which is primarily to allow the audience to see the later chapter, which could be crafted into a standalone movie if need be. Too Old centers on Martin (Miles Teller, quieter than a mouse), a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detective who appears to be acting as a contract killer for different criminal organizations. Martin’s goal seems to be to use these underworld figures to take down the truly bad people such as rapists and pedophiles. When he finds out he’s been tasked with killing a man who just owed someone $8,000 he refuses to do it. He has his limits.
The world Martin lives in is also somewhat warped. His boss at the Sheriff’s office leads his employees in a chant of “Fascism! Fascism! Fascism!” and a former military colleague, Viggo (John Hawkes, wonderfully grounded), is obsessed with the idea that the world as we know it is coming to an end and the dark ages will soon be upon us. In one scene he and Martin look over Los Angeles and he waxes on how “Cities will be flooded. Cities will burn to the ground.” These are not happy people. Meanwhile, Viggo is taking direction from a new age-y prophet, Diana (Jenna Malone, brings the camp), who has her own personal kill list. And did we mention that Martin appears to be in a relationship with a brilliant high school senior, Janey (Nell Tiger Free, intriguing), whose actual age is unclear? That’s a lot to unpack for a series that doesn’t seem as deep as it thinks it is.
The script by Refn, Ed Brubaker and Halley Wegryn Gross isn’t very mysterious in nature, but as he’s done with both 2013’s Only God Forgives and 2016’s The Neon Demon, Refn directs his actors to deliver their lines in a deliberate and often unnatural rhythm. The cast occasionally circumvents this aesthetic, especially during emotionally charged moments, but Refn and his longtime editor Matthew Newman often have scenes breathe for excruciatingly long times. They love silence. Quiet is something Refn champions. In the forced intimacy of a theater this can be tolerable if it pays off (in this case it often doesn’t). Whether viewers at home will have that patience on their small screen seems hard to believe.
Refn can, however, bring some fun to the proceedings. During the fifth episode there is a beautifully shot car chase across New Mexico where the one of Martin’s targets argues over what song to play on the radio. They end up on “Mandy” by Barry Manilow and it’s such a complete flip from the sexualized events from the rest of the episode that you can’t help but smile.
There are also scenes where Refn’s aesthetic skills work to spectacular effect. When Martin and the aforementioned man who is $8,000 short visit a Japanese gangster for a loan, things get a bit out of hand. With Martin watching from behind a glass wall, we witness the man make a gruesome sacrifice to keep his life to secure the funds. Cliff Martinez’s signature electronic rhythms that pulse thought the rest of the series are missing but this is a moment where the silence actually works. And the gorgeous composition of the scene never changes. The problem is that in the two episodes screened there are simply not enough of these standout scenes to overcome the often-glacial pace of the production.
During the film’s official press conference, Refn remarked that women are the “hope” of the series and the men are “demolished.” Perhaps that is clearer in subsequent episodes, but hard to discern from what was presented. Outside of Janey, who is introduced as a genius protégé, the female characters are viewed sex objects who are used and abused by men. And we’re not even sure how to approach the beginning of episode five where an 18-year-old gay virgin is set up by a porn producer to be subsequently rapped. The scene is simply excruciating, crafted only to make the viewer squirm by playing with their discomfort with gay sex. It’s dated and tired and Refn should have known better. But considering he plans to immediately return to feature films perhaps he learned that in the context of the streaming platform even he has limits.