Watching Too Old to Die Young is like swimming through stylish sewerage

Available to stream on a Amazon Prime Video, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s gruesome and super stylish 13-part series is one of the most talked about TV events of the year. Critic Luke Buckmaster comes to terms with one hell of a show.    

Is making it through the entirety of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 13-part series Too Old to Die Young the equivalent of a hideous, hitherto unimaginable endurance test – like doing laps of freestyle in a swimming pool pumped full of sewerage?

That is, bizarrely, the only analogy I can think of, because this excessively stylish, excessively violent, excessively long, excessively…excessive show has done strange things to me noggin: twisting it, blowing it, moving it to the beats of a trippy sonic palette (from composer Cliff Martinez) and luring it with the sumptuously pretty pictures of cinematographers Darius Khondji and Diego García, whose neon-glazed images glow like electric poetry.

Buckle up and be prepared, though, because the pace is often glacial and Refn’s unbridled indulgence so extreme the series doubles as a visual representation of an auteur disappearing up their own arse – in the best and worst ways. It is well-known that Howard Hawks, when making the 1940 screwball classic His Girl Friday, directed his actors to speak substantially faster than people converse in real-life, creating a verbal ping pong effect: sharp, snappy, sassy spitballing. Refn achieves the opposite. He directed his actors to deliver sparse dialogue slowly, with long pregnant pauses between and even during their lines, which creates a hollowed out feeling – as if their words are being spoken off the edge of a cliff, echoing into a vast canyon where nobody is listening.

Near the end of the third episode (no spoilers) police officer Martin Jones (Miles Teller) – the closest character TOTDY has to a protagonist – shares a typically plodding conversation with an ex-FBI agent, Viggo (John Hawkes). This dangerous, intensely down-in-the-mouth man is now an avenging angel type character, tracking down and killing bad people – particularly predatory sex offenders. They are alone in a diner, sitting at the counter drinking coffee, with Refn framing the pair in a way that uses literal space between them to emphasise psychological distance. There’s such a great sense of distance between them, in fact, actual and otherwise, that when they speak it feels like they are talking to themselves, conversing with aspects of their own souls.

The uncomfortable psychological energy of this scene and others of a similarly itchy impact reminded me of Craig S. Zahler’s nerve-jangling Kafkaesque prison movie Brawl in Cell Block 99, starring Vince Vaughn as a skull-crushing tough guy who must murder an inmate to save his partner and their unborn baby. Both (very gruesome) productions revolve around characters who appear to be sort of in reality and sort of not, Refn influenced by the Freudian idea of motion pictures as an externalisation of the mind’s operations. In that diner scene, maybe even in every scene, the characters in Too Old to Die Young are somewhere north of Hollywood and west of hell, to borrow the name of the secondary title afforded to the show when it screened at Cannes.

The first episode establishes the mood of this ugly world and our moral expectations of it. After listening to Martin’s partner Larry (Lance Gross) engage with a young woman he pulled over, intimidating her with extremely sleazy and aggressive powerplay (“I could come to your place, since now I know where you live…”) it is fair to say we do not assume the characters will behave with integrity going forward, and that the show’s overview outlook will be bleak. Yep. It’s bleak.

The first episode demonstrates Refn’s willingness to subvert narrative structures, to say the least, killing off a character we presumed would play a part in anchoring the drama going forward. In the second episode, as if to proclaim “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” the filmmaker introduces a new cast and abandons the Los Angeles setting completely, delving into the back room machinations of a Mexican drug cartel. It’s a challenging episode: beautifully shot, like all of it, with impressive frame-holding. Pity the conversations are flat-out boring.

Returning to the aforementioned diner scene, which is useful in the context of a review because it says a lot about TOTDY’s style and almost nothing about its storyline, Viggo at one point asks Martin whether he needs to leave. The cop responds no, “I’ve got time,” and ain’t that the truth: everybody in this show has got time – even and especially the filmmaker. Except I doubt most viewers will make it to even this early point. There are morsels of gold strewn throughout, including (in episode five) one of the best and most interestingly structured car chase scenes I’ve seen for a long time, which begins realistically then morphs into a Lynchian bad dream and a Breaking Bad-esque desert confrontation.

To say that the series, described by Refn as a 13-hour film, is too long or snail-paced is like making the same observation about a slow TV show such as The Ghan. There’s an element of stating the bleeding obvious, and an element of missing the point. Unconventional pacing is so obviously a bedrock element, intended in this instance to make us shift and squirm, harking back to that initial, endurance test analogy I couldn’t get out of my head – about swimming through sewerage. At least – and here’s a few words I never thought I’d string together – it is sewerage of an extremely stylish variety.