#byNWR: Too Old to Die Young - Episode 1: The Devil

Before the celebrated Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 for his quintessential action thriller Drive, the filmmaker had a few bumps in the road to critical acclaim and commercial success.  After his 2003 English-language debut Fear X tanked and bankrupted his production company Jang Go Star, Mr. Refn was forced to take any job he could get to rebuild his assets.  

Among the projects made during this brief rebound period were two sequels to his 1996 crime drama Pusher and a very brief stint in ITV British television with his 2007 episode of the hit series Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.  Directing Downton Abbey and The Guest star Dan Stevens in an episode titled Nemesis, Refn described the experience and finished product as ‘extremely degrading’ and is commonly looked upon as the one effort that shows off the least number of directorial stylistic flourishes Mr. Refn has since become known for.

Shortly thereafter Refn made Bronson and quickly rebuilt his career in feature filmmaking before receiving international stardom with Drive and cemented his signature aesthetic with his 2016 Los Angeles set fashion industry thriller The Neon Demon.  Released theatrically by the now defunct Broad Green Pictures and Amazon Studios, the picture did meager business but has since amassed a cult following and introduced Mr. Refn to the financiers of what would ultimately become his next project which included a unique proposition: return to television.

Teaming up with comic book writer and cartoonist Ed Brubaker, the project commissioned by Amazon entitled Too Old to Die Young brings the writer-director back to his favorite Neo-Noir setting of Los Angeles, California for his penchant for neon-lit nightclubs and shadowy ultraviolent criminal underworlds.  In the early stages of pre-production, Too Old to Die Young appeared to be shaping up to be Refn’s next feature when a most unusual development occurred: it would be a miniseries running roughly thirteen hours broken up into ten episodes running about an hour and a half each. 

Coming on the heels of auteur-driven television with a singular creative visionary helming the whole thing such as Twin Peaks: The Return and recently Chernobyl, each episode of Too Old to Die Young was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn with the opening credit #byNWR greeting viewers soon as the show starts.  Further still, contrary to the weekly airing of new episodes, all ten episodes of Too Old to Die Young aired on Amazon Instant Video at the same time, allowing ample room for binge watching or however you prefer to digest the series. 

Despite airing on the small screen, Refn has gone on the record saying he doesn’t consider Too Old to Die Young a miniseries, instead suggesting the project is a longform movie broken up into chapters but that’s open to debate.  Even more unusual is how the director went on to promote the series at Cannes in 2019, presenting episodes four and five theatrically rather than the start of the show.  Now that we have got the basics out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the first episode of the Danish writer-director’s first true foray from the big screen to the small screen without compromising his cinematic vision or adhering to the demands of running time for theatrical exhibition.

Episode 1: The Devil

Opening on a night like any other, we find Detective Martin Jones (Miles Teller channeling Ryan Gosling’s stoic driver) with his partner Larry (Lance Gross) prowling the streets of Los Angeles.  These are bad cops with Martin’s relationship with seventeen-year-old high schooler Janey (Nell Tiger Free) and Larry’s musings about wanting to murder a prostitute he regularly sees so his wife doesn’t find out giving viewers ample reasons to abandon the show outright. 

This same night, a Mexican assassin named Jesus (Augusto Aguilera playing a fallen angel?) casually walks up to Larry before putting a bullet into his head.  As it turns out, Larry doubled as an assassin for Nigerian crime boss Damian (Babs Olusanmokun) and wants his surviving partner Martin to take his place, setting in motion a labyrinthine crime saga spanning LA and Mexico including but not limited to Yakuzas, the Russian mob and the Mexican cartel.

From the outset, the chilly expressionless performances by Teller and Gross amid extended long takes with elongated pauses between the sparse exchanges of dialogue and the way with which we’re dropped in the middle of this saga without a point of reference will no doubt remind Refn fans of his still polarizing Only God Forgives.  It’s a stylistic choice Refn has become fond of but newcomers to his work and television media consumers will find his approach trying.  That we’re also presented with outwardly reprehensible characters we can’t latch onto or identify with also makes Refn’s uncompromising journey into darkness a bit of a challenge to engage in.

That said, as expected Refn and Se7en cinematographer Darius Khondji whip up quite a visual feast of neon fluorescent colors, symmetrical framing, graceful pans and tracking shots, illuminating the seedy criminal underworld permeating Los Angeles.  As always Refn’s right hand soundman Cliff Martinez provides a pulsating electronic score though there are times when it sounds a bit like a collection of unused cues from The Neon Demon. 

Despite the leisurely pacing and near total void of human warmth, one of the great things about the first installment is how you are left to decide whether or not you want to continue down this long and (no pun intended) winding road.  Where most shows present a particular narrative hook to lure you into the next episode, the pilot for Refn’s show is deliberately bereft of such a cliffhanger.  In other words, you’re really not sure where this is gonna go and aren’t left with much reason to continue other than personal investment, which is a rare and oddly beautiful thing for film and television in any form.

- Andrew Kotwicki