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Nicolas Winding Refn, Too Old to Die Young, and the beauty of the indulgent filmmaker

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Unlike anything else

If you were in a position where you were able to make a movie, wouldn't you want to make a movie you... wanted to make?

The work of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn calls to mind the debate of whether the artist needs to be in service of his audience. The movies Refn makes are the ones he wants to make, the result often being something that isn't exactly a casual or easy watch. By no means do I think a defense and ode to a particular filmmaker, in this case Refn, should rest on a critique of the audience, but I think it's an important aspect of understanding Refn's work, and, most recently, his Amazon Prime series Too Old to Die Young.

Bluntly, Refn has been both praised and criticized for his self-indulgence across his films, which linger on long silences and punctuations of gratuitous unpleasantness. His 2009 viking acid trip Valhalla Rising features graphic disembowelment; the third film in his Pusher trilogy centers around the bloody cleanup of a murder. And perhaps most-famously, a lot of moviegoers' first impression of Refn will return to the "headstomp" in 2011's Drive. So yeah, the man likes violence. But he also likes silence.

Drive and Refn's subsequent Ryan Gosling collaboration Only God Forgives are sometimes teased for their star's awkward silence and stares. "Teased," and if not that outright criticized for substituting silence as a sort of poker face for dramatic and thematic substance. "What does it mean?" "I don't know, but it must be smart." Tastes vary, and some viewers won't tolerate Refn's brooding antiheroes and sickening violence for 100 or so minutes.

The point trying to be made here, though, isn't necessarily the codes and meanings of Refn's work. Whether his films are simply gorgeously-shot atrocities or deep ruminations accompanied by brooding unpleasantness, it's not my aim to say. Instead I want to assert that whether or not the work carries a deep message for a particular viewer, Refn's films and filmmakers of his ilk are to be treasured. 

A Tableau of Trash

100 minutes of neon-trauma too much? Well, how about 13 hours?

Refn has repeatedly referred to Too Old to Die Young, a ten-part series that premiered in full on Amazon Prime, as a "13-hour movie," with Refn directing and writing (with co-writer Ed Brubaker) all episodes. With each episode (except the finale) ranging from an hour to an hour-and-a-half in length, they certainly can feel like feature films in themselves, and are as languidly-paced as any of Refn's work.

Too Old boils down to Martin (Miles Teller), an LA County Sheriff's Department detective who moonlights as a contract killer, becoming further embroiled in a criminal underbelly consisting of Mexican cartels, morally-obligated hitmen, misogynistic gangsters, disgusting pornographers, and every other scumbag-POS you can imagine. I've come to think of Too Old's sprawl as a tableau of trash, committed to depicting some of the very worst people imaginable. This can lead to some troubling scenarios early in the series, which would perhaps be where "self-indulgent" can be raised as a critique of Refn.

Throughout his films, NWR (the acronym-moniker that has become Refn's brand and calling-card) has often portrayed male protagonists with severe emotional disabilities, prone to extreme violence. Tom Hardy's Charlie Bronson in, you guessed it, Bronson, is a grinning loose cannon of muscle and weight, his rage and poverty manifesting in a psychotic brawler who treats his hulking body like a bag of bricks, throwing it at cops and robbers alike for kicks. Julian (Ryan Gosling) in Only God Forgives is a near-mute expat, managing a Muay-Thai gym in Bangkok while working angles in his family's criminal organization.

Too Old to Die Young's Martin begins as a contract killer for Damian (Babs Olusanmokun), a soft-spoken Jamaican whose gang runs its operations out of an ice-skating rink. Calmly, dispassionately offing scum for Damian, Martin draws a line in Too Old's fourth episode, wherein he's meant to kill a man who owes $8,000 to the Jamaicans. One bizarre trip to a shady yakuza den later (featuring a katana-wielding cameo from auteur game designer Hideo Kojima), and Martin spells out his unwillingness to murder for simple money. "I want the worst guys you got," he asks for his next assignment. Oh boy.

The subsequent episode's intense focus on an out-of-state hit on two brutal, sadistic pornographers can be a stomach-churning affair, actually for the things Refn doesn't show us. But a point is made: Martin will slice and shoot people without a thought, but won't off the people he sees as undeserving. Eventually teaming with another hitman (John Hawkes) and a strange "psychic" (Jena Malone) to seek out scumbags that have escaped legal justice, Martin is framed as an angel of death of sorts. Refn's obsession with the occult, tarot, and superstition can be an alienating force for an audience. Hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo that allows characters with glass eyes to saunter about LA dispensing fatal justice, or dominant cartel women to command oral sex as a means of connecting to the dead. 

Critics of the work might argue that Refn reinforces his exploitation, sex, and violence, with the smoke and mirrors (sometimes literally!) of superstition; thematic depth of a nature mortals can't understand, leaving us with hollow gore and skin shows. My counterpoint would be that perhaps there are stretches of work like Too Old to Die Young that are absolutely excessive and unnecessary, but who is to say what is and isn't necessary in a work of art? Especially when taking in a filmmaker as tricky and divisive as Refn.

Doing Things His Way

Take a hypothetical: Refn comes into a meeting with investors who've read his and Brubaker's scripts. They think the hour and a half second episode, a total sidetrack from the previous episode, in which we meet Jesus (Augusto Aguilero), the heir-apparent of a brutal cartel, is a bit too odd. The family is obsessed with soccer, grooming a team for local play with the threat of a bullet to the head as punishment for failure. "So Nick, we like the show but, uh, maybe ax the weird soccer--it doesn't really get us anywhere--and edit the second episode to, like, twenty minutes into the first?" Practical, maybe. All we really learn from episode two ("The Lovers," as all episodes bear a tarot-inspired title) is that Jesus' crimelord mother was murdered by a cop, and that the family is ailing along with its ineffective, wheezing patriarch. Practical isn't always Refn's style, thoughWallpaper, is what some of Refn's long scenes come down to. You're meant to stare at gorgeously-framed and lit sets and people, often without a deeper meaning in that moment. Yet for Refn's insistence on doing things slowly, that's the style.

I've come to realize that Refn's style of gorgeous, sleek visuals and horrible violence and cruelty is a mix of three things: his European heritage, respect for the ornately-crafted, and his fascination and love for B-movies and trash cinema like the French Extreme films of directors like Gaspar Noe. The result functions something like a nightmarish Dior show, replete with the hitmen and sadists of something like a Sam Peckinpah movie. Only way, way more twisted.

With this in mind, the long holds on Jesus sun-bathing, or gangsters posing, serious and statue-like, makes a degree of sense. Refn admires beauty; beautiful people, well-dressed people. Staring at beautiful bodies is a part of the show (the European artiste), which makes the destruction of those bodies through horrible violence (the schlock-film provocateur) simply the opposite side of the same coin. Refn's commitment to his "wallpaper aesthetic" is a means of lulling the audience into senses of the mundane or sometimes even tranquility, only to punctuate with sickening defilement as means of tearing down the old as well as delivering visceral emotion to the viewer.

The idea that being slow, and exhibiting "hollow" scenes of beauty are both Refn's style and substance is key to appreciating his work, I would say. Some filmmakers can have the two separated: If the winding, elaborate dialogue of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is the style, the substance ultimately comes from his structure and that film's meta-narrative of film as a medium serving as a powerful weapon (to kill Nazis!); the hallucinatory visuals and editing of Apocalypse Now are pretty to look at and take in, but they create a hazy retelling of men returning to primal instincts and human infrastructure collapsing. With Refn, the style of taking in long scenes of "nothing" is in itself a commentary, perhaps on art itself. 

"FASCISM! FASCISM! FASCISM!"

Too Old to Die Young comes as a perfect and perhaps the strongest case for Refn's ambitions beyond simple style, with the show serving as a platform for some political dissent on the Danish director's part. He's spoken about how the series was being developed during the 2016 election, and how the United States seemingly ripped off a rubber mask of tolerance and progressive thinking, shattering that illusion with Donald Trump's presidency. The increased propensity for violence and overt-racism ushers in the apocalyptic prophecies of Too Old's characters, allegedly-noble killers working to keep the scum from boiling over.

For as bleak as the series is, Refn seems to have developed a sense of humor about his own insistence on unnaturally-quiet leads. Episodes are peppered with scenes of Martin stoically working the offices of the police station as the straight man to the shenanigans of his co-workers. Led by an unnamed Lieutenant (Hart Bochner), who playfully chides Martin for his strong work ethic, the department seems to only exist to put on literal performances, rallying happily to shout "FASCISM! FASCISM!" It's an insane bureaucracy out of Terry Gilliam, almost, but the scariest thing is that we can flip on the news and see real things not far from Refn's neatly-framed hell.

In addition, the series deals primarily with a Mexican family looking to make its return to the United States. Naturally the state of border relations between the US and Mexico colors Jesus and his family's agenda in all sorts of ways, with Jesus asserting a strong Mexican nationalism that boasts of outlasting the USA as it descends into anarchy, and eventually turns to dust.

Furthermore, the blunt and immediate slew of characters who display overt misogyny might be difficult to stomach when it seems as if Refn enjoys rolling in this filth, but starts to pay off as the series progresses. As someone who doesn't feel capable of speaking for women and deciding what is and isn't ultimately misogynistic, I would just say that I think Refn drives at a point, particularly with Yaritza (Cristina Rodeo), Jesus' wife and partner in crime. Through scenes of her graphic sexual dominance of him, and casual violence inflicted on stray followers, Yaritza is revealed to be one of Too Old's most powerful players as a defender of battered women and tormenter of men. Again, in a country whose president escapes rape accusations by laughing them off, Refn's hard-edged brutality and bluntness is tantamount to a scream.

A Different Breed

Too Old to Die Young, coming at a point some years after Refn has broken through to the masses with Drive is sort of the ultimate empowerment of the filmmaker. Almost literally: "Make us a ten-hour movie," to which Refn responds "13 hours okay?" It will certainly not win you over if you're not a fan of the man's work, because one could argue that it largely exacerbates the qualities that make his films so divisive, to the point where it almost becomes a parody of itself. So, not for everybody. But Too Old to Die Young is the rare and tantalizing case where a filmmaker, whose works are often anything but commercial, is asked not to reign in his own oddball sensibilities, but instead expound on them and multiply them.

I would implore the curious to give Too Old to Die Young a chance, because it's a special thing. Interestingly, when the show premiered a little while back at the Cannes Film Festival, rather than open with the first episode Refn screened the fourth and fifth episode. He's spoken on how the series is inspired by the way in which streaming content is consumed, often as background noise while people cook or work at home. With that in mind, perhaps his "wallpaper aesthetic" makes a degree of sense, his tone-poem (or maybe it's "tone-black metal anthem") vibes a feeling, rather than a story. 

For the adventurous, I think I would recommend an approach similar to the Cannes premiere. The fifth episode is the most self-contained and action-driven; if you don't like that, perhaps the show isn't for you. In contrast, I found the second episode to test even my patience a bit, as someone who is a massive fan of Refn's work. It's incredibly slow, and a bit of a derailment of any momentum built in the first episode. In any event, I would say a viewer should go into Too Old to Die Young with an expectation different from any other series or mini-series that has come before it. Note, I won't commit to saying Refn's "13-hour movie" is the greatest series in creation, or anything so bold, but it is undeniably unique in its presentation, even outside of the pacing within the episodes. If you really must, throw it on while you're washing dishes or cooking. Just be sure to close your eyes for some parts, lest you lose your appetite. 

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Sam van der Meer
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