The fourth and fifth episodes of Too Old to Die Young screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and those same two episodes were given to critics as well. I was worried that, by jumping into a series partway through, I’d be instantly at sea, but as it turns out, Refn’s thing barely has a plot to begin with, emphasizing mood and dread over story and character development. In spite of striking images and a palpably eerie aesthetic, the show is almost mind-numbingly tedious, offset by occasional blasts of excitement, usually in the form of violence or sex or sexualized violence. Unless something is seriously wrong with you, you won’t feel good about liking those parts of Too Old to Die Young, and the rest of it is simply not likable to begin with.
Teller plays a cop who moonlights as a hired assassin in order to pay off a debt to an Los Angeles drug cartel. He only kills truly despicable people—rapists, mostly—but he’s no Boy Scout, as he has a girlfriend, Janey, who's apparently still in high school (played by Nell Tiger Free, best known as Myrcella Baratheon, and Refn wants you to notice that she’s, erm, all grown up now). Weirdly, Janey’s dad (William Baldwin) seems totally cool with her dating a beat cop in his 30s. There’s a scene in episode four where dad rattles off daughter’s unbelievable accomplishments—walking the red carpet at Cannes at age 12, getting published in the New Yorker at 14—while daughter sits there like an ordinary dumb teenager, making it clear that Refn and cowriter Ed Brubaker have not taken the time to construct an actual character but would rather leer at some sort of ludicrous underage fantasy. It’s… well, it’s gross.
The best section I’ve seen so far comes in episode five, which follows Teller’s cop to New Mexico, where he hunts down a pair of brother pornographers. An extended high-speed chase through the desert ensues, and it’s easily the most interesting thing in the two episodes, although where it ends up is both grim (expected) and somewhat baffling and anticlimactic (less so). And to get to the chase, you have to sit through a very not-fun scene where one of the pornographer brothers sprays a naked, nameless woman with a hose for around six minutes. Good luck there.
The closest point of comparison I can make, at least in TV terms, is the recent season of Twin Peaks, which was similarly distended with long, pointless gaps of nothingness. But David Lynch’s mischievousness and surreal digressions aren’t a part of Refn’s arsenal. Instead, he lingers on gorgeous, neon-drenched shots that go on for far too long, boring us in the process. A scene that’s less than a page’s worth of dialogue is stretched out to five, six, seven minutes. Long, silent pauses precede every line. You’ll feel your life slipping away before your very eyes—maybe that’s why it’s called Too Old to Die Young.
I suppose it’s unfair to judge a piece of which I’ve only seen a middle chunk. But that’s the sort of judgment Refn’s invited upon himself. Look, I’m predisposed to like any kind of grimy crime noir stuff, and there are elements of Too Old to Die Young that I’m really into—mostly the hard-boiled, overworked genre clichés like a sad, silent cop turning vigilante; Teller is pretty good in the role, too. And the music, by frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, is as gorgeous and brilliant as you'd expect.
But going off of the small fraction I’ve seen, Refn has made the too-frequently-made mistake of thinking a TV show can just be a really long movie. It can’t. What’s hypnotic for 100 minutes becomes an agonizing anesthetic when it’s stretched out to 10-plus hours, and by slooooowwwwing everything down, Refn has robbed a potentially thrilling crime-ride of any possible vitality.
Maybe one day he’ll cut this thing into a proper feature-length movie. That might be worth seeing. Then again, based on what I've seen so far, it might just end up being gross.
All 10 episodes of Too Old to Die Young are now streaming on Amazon Prime.