Review: Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Too Old to Die Young’

Too Old to Die Young Review - 2019 Nicolas Winding Refn Amazon Series

Mexican cartels, Yakuza samurai, sadistic neo-Nazi pornographers, psychic oracles and a High Priestess of Death. No, this isn’t a Quentin Tarantino flick or the latest Japanese anime to hit Netflix. This is Too Old to Die Young, the latest work from Nicolas Winding Refn. This trend-setting, 13-hour series is Refn’s first co-creation with Ed Brubaker and the product of a more limited writing collaboration with Halley Gross. It is by far one of the most stylish, evocative and divisive shows to come out of 2019. What starts out as a crime thriller quickly turns into an examination of post-2016 American society and a beginner’s guide to Tarot card magic.

Most prevalent within the 10 episodes of Too Old to Die Young are two main stories involving Martin Jones (Miles Teller), a police detective, who is in debt to Nigerian gangsters. He’s on a quest to rid the world of the vilest individuals, as he aligns with an ex-FBI agent turned vigilante, Viggo Larsen (John Hawkes) and his handler, an oracle named Diana (Jena Malone). Secondly, on a more personal level, Martin struggles with how to handle his relationship with underage girlfriend, Janey (Nell Tiger Free), and her eccentric father, Theo (William Baldwin). The latter story involves up and coming cartel boss, Jesus Rojas (Augusto Aguilera) and his appointed bride, the mysterious Tarot reader, Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo). Both stories are isolated at first, but as Martin’s crusade against crime grows, the stories merge.

Refn and Brubaker create an experience that incorporates melodrama and dark humor, wielding a lifestyle manifesto of sorts. Refn uses a multitude of characters more or less as cyphers, appearing to let the actors fill in the blanks through their performances. Martin Jones represents a numb American society that is looking for a way out and doesn’t know where to go. What may seem at times to be bland, unenthusiastic acting on the part of Teller serves as a blank slate for contemplation and meditation by the audience.

Not all aspects of the 13-hour tale are solid gold. Refn dives into the murky waters of incest, reminiscent of when he previously grazed upon this topic in Only God Forgives (2013). In neither case does Refn give proper context and execution to this taboo subject matter. He appears to grasp at straws in its presentation. It feels hollow and pointless.

Similarly, Martin’s relationship with Janey seems to mostly serve the purpose of later facilitating the interaction Martin has with other characters critical to the plot. Refn seems to have a preoccupation with (or repulsion for) this “real Lolita shit” as he also incorporated it in The Neon Demon (2016). Nevertheless, Baldwin, as Janey’s boisterous father, is one of the more memorable characters, providing entertainment and color. His character portrayal of Theo is a mix of Charlie Sheen fueled by tiger blood and Harvey Weinstein lying in wait.  

A slightly missed opportunity is maximizing the development of characters Jesus (Augusto Aguilera) and Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo). This modern day conquistador and his bride of death are a compelling duo. Their intriguing personalities and somewhat unpredictable actions generate a sense of urgency to binge-watch the series just to find out what their true motivations are. Refn focuses the most surreal elements of the series on these characters, but alas, their true character only appears at the end. 

Brubaker brings his pulpy writing expertise to the show in full force. His comics series Criminal (2006- present) and Killed or Be Killed (2016-2018) are great fun, but it’s with Too Old to Die Young that Brubaker is really let off the chain. The character of Viggo Larsen is an improvement over Kill or Be Killed’s vigilante/superhuman Dylan. Like that character, Too Old to Die Young’s Viggo has a supernatural edge about him, yet he offers a philosophical motivation in addition to reactionary impulse. Hawkes’ convincing portrayal of Viggo is minimalistic yet so on point. When he speaks about man and nature, the bending of nature and reality, and how our “perfect” societies are making us crazy and driving us to our doom, it seems as if sacred truths are revealed. 

Another stellar actor among the cast is Hart Bochner as the Lieutenant. This commanding character serves as a great foil to Martin’s straight man persona. His insane kumbaya work sermons are a real treat. And Malone — a returning Refn compatriot — is an additional standout. Her presence is calm and controlled, mellow and adrift. Malone leaves viewers speculating that her character Diana can truly communicate with the other side. 

Yet, the Best Actor award goes to James Urbaniak as porno hustler Stevie. Throughout this nightmare-fueled experience, Stevie has an incredibly eerie and provocative command of the screen and the characters around him. Urbaniak emits pure evil. His character is both charming and clearly cold, unsympathetic to his unsuspecting victims. When the camera closes in on his face as he speaks about the most uncomfortable sexual acts, one expects his facial moles to erupt with tarantula spiders on the attack. His eyes have hypnotic intensity, and even though he is disgusting, there is an element about him that lures constant attention. 

The artistic talent of Refn is on display throughout the series, particularly as he creates colorful scenes of beauty amidst the worst aspects of society. He effectively deals with the political and spiritual anxieties surrounding us. The ending of Urbaniak’s episode is, however, quite uncanny. Refn’s use of Barry Manilow’s 1973 song “Mandy” during a somber car chase seems at first to be an absurdist prank like the ones depicted in Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999). Yet, it reveals the depth of society’s corrupt affection for conflict and vice.

While watching Too Old to Die Young, I recognized that it’s far from perfect. But like a deer in the head lights, I remained fixated. Even though the outcome is unconventional, there’s a unique dynamic between the writing styles of Refn and Brubaker. Too Old to Die Young is rough around the edges, and perhaps deliberately so. It’s almost as if the writers are two brothers in a car fighting between soft rock and techno on the radio. Taken on their own, each genre is fine, but when mixed and overlapped, they create a distinct, albeit disturbing, sound that only Refn’s visuals can truly capture.   

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.