#byNWR: Too Old to Die Young - Episode 9: The Empress

After hitting viewers in the face with a bloody machete and then some with the previous and still very shocking episode of Nicolas Winding Refn’s television series Too Old to Die Young, where do you go from there?  Why, into outer space including but not limited to rituals involving soda pop, silver eyes, “the beings”, and last but not least, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point 

While continuing the series where it left off with the same set of characters, for the first half of the ninth episode entitled The Empress the Danish provocateur seems to be screwing with the audience by taking the series very briefly into orbit.  With the audience left battered and broken by what they witnessed in The Hanged Man, our minds are disoriented just enough for the writer-director to introduce elements and rules that should not be associative with this series, making you wonder how we arrived in the strange and oddly wonderful netherworld of Refn’s making.

By now, the cartel is establishing a stronghold of the Los Angeles crime scene with Jesus (Augusto Aguilera) presenting himself by now as an openly bisexual gangster with an extraordinary sequence of Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo) donning him in female makeup.  Simultaneously psychic/godmother Diana (Jena Malone) seems to be taken on some kind of psychological journey that appears to be…extraterrestrial?  Occult?  From the depths of a flame filled Hell or of a secret society?  Refn doesn’t tell.  Dance and singing factors heavily in this series with a live performance for Yaritza and Jesus that is every bit as surreal as Damian’s meditative dance from Episode 6.

Meanwhile Viggo (John Hawkes) wages what appears to be an all-out war against a hideout of rapists and pedophiles which unfolds in a series of abstract images of explosions, swaths of neon-fluorescent colors, Santa Claus, full frontal male nudity, and as aforementioned, Antonioni’s much maligned masterwork Zabriskie Point.  For those of you who recall Antonioni’s take on late 1960s counterculture, critics and audiences simply did not get that movie though Refn’s channeling of that film’s climactic and captivating energy plays like a nightmarish gift from God. 

Episode 8 of Too Old to Die Young left viewers in a state of catatonia and blaringly loud notes of apocalypse.  Despite the bizarre and otherworldly opening half of Episode 9 The Empress, the series alas finally starts to offer a glimmer of hope for redemption in Refn’s underworld gone wildly mad.  Visually this is some of the greatest work the Danish filmmaker has ever fashioned and the closing scenes feel right at home with the famous dinner exchange in Michael Mann’s Heat.  Thus far this has been a rough and tough journey for this longtime Refn disciple but the sweet rewards starting to present themselves nearing the end of this series are well worth the bloody and brutal wait.

- Andrew Kotwicki