By James Slaymaker.
It’s been less than a decade since the momentous critical and commercial success of Drive catapulted Nicolas Winding Refn from niche provocateur to international household name, yet the idea that the director was once poised to take the film industry by storm already seems patently ridiculous. Refn toiled for years on the mediocre Pusher trilogy, a series of crime films whose gritty, quasi-documentary aesthetic did little to distinguish them from the flood of overwrought social realist features that were flooding the festival circuit at the tail end of the nineties. It wasn’t until 2007’s Bronson that Refn started to establish a truly unique authorial voice. Staging an ultra-violent prison flick as a series of stately, hermetically sealed tableaux, Refn moved away from visceral naturalism and towards lavish stylisation. The abysmal Valhalla Rising followed, a lugubrious take on Norse mythology that demonstrated the fawning awe of Viking bloodthirst one would expect from a teenager’s black metal band.
With Drive, Refn courted mainstream appeal while still retaining his distinct signature. The excessive violence, the sluggish pacing, the ostentatious set design, and the hero-worship of untameable, ultra-masculine loners were all present, but this time Refn dialled down the more wilfully alienating aspects of his style and embraced a populist mode. Working within the conventions of 80s action thrillers, immersing himself within the surface pleasures of a glistening metropolis, and populating his cast with a line-up of attractive up-and-comers, Refn opportunistically guaranteed himself a hit – and the effort paid off. Not only did Drive score 5 times at the box office, it nabbed Refn the Best Director Prize at Cannes, and was released to near unanimous praise from the press. The logical next step would have been for Refn to continue down this path of commercial stability and mainstream respectability; instead, Refn’s next two projects, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon, struck a bizarre middle ground. If the surface pleasures of Drive remained – the syntho-pop score, the glistening neon lighting, the uncritical engagement with low-culture genre tropes – the tone of macho romanticism was replaced with one of sadistic nihilism.
Which brings us to Too Old to Die Young, a project which marks Refn’s definitive descent into self-parody and is bound to alienate all but the director’s most ardent fans. The first image: a mural of a barren desert landscape, painted on the side of a run-down public building. A glacial, lateral panning shot tracks across the length of the mural and caresses the curves of a cop car, before finally reaching its point of interest: the series lead Martin, standing in the middle-ground of the shot, framed in profile, staring blankly out into the Los Angeles street, backlit by a stream of neon lights illuminating a chintzy roadside motel. A 90° cut and we’re looking at Martin from the front, the camera gradually zooming out until the framing changes from a close-up to a medium shot. Again, his expression is inscrutable. The reason I describe these two shots in such exacting detail is that, in the series’ opening moments, Refn establishes what is impressive about his style while also underlining what is so regressive. An uncritical fascination with fast cars, neon lights, glistening textures, and macho action heroes is the primary force which animates Refn’s visual imagination throughout the series; the fact that Refn’s worldview is completely puerile perhaps wouldn’t be such a damning flaw if Too Old to Die Young wasn’t so laboriously self-serious, or if it didn’t have clear pretentions to offering a valuable socio-political critique of Trump’s America. Like Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon, the series recycles over-familiar pulp conventions while stripping them of any sense of kineticism, emotionally involvement, or (God forbid) fun, instead parading its empty human mannequins through a sluggish series of stock set-pieces, tediously ratcheting up the shock factor with each iteration.
This is, of course, not to say that genre conventions can’t be used as a vehicle for incisive cultural commentary, but that Refn is to insular of a filmmaker to reveal anything of substance about his characters, the formulas he’s toying with, or reality in general. Whereas filmmakers like Paul Verhoeven and Brian De Palma adopt the codes of low culture genre films in order to self-reflexively analyse their inner-workings, the ideologies they perpetuate, and the cultural landscape which spawns them, Refn takes these narrative models at face value. Refn creates self-contained, phantasmagorical environments which bear little relation to the way the actual world functions; moral voids in which every man is a soulless sociopath, every woman is a passive waif, and violence is the only way to retain some semblance of dignity is to resort to vigilante violence. If it is Refn’s ultimate aim to use the overwhelming cruelty of his work to reveal something about man’s inhumanity to man, it would be more effective if he actually demonstrated some awareness of the factors which motivate people to do evil things (ideology, personal background, class, social conditioning), rather than confronting us with streams of stoic figures who commit atrocities for no other reason than they are innately bad. This is the crucial factor which separates Refn from the great filmmakers who are similarly drawn to the darker side of human nature (Abel Ferrara and Claire Denis immediately come to mind).
In episode 5, detective-turned-hired-assassin Martin Jones (Miles Teller) infiltrates a gang of porn directors as part of a hit; for no discernible reason he decides to spend the entire day under their wing, listening impassively as they describe to him the horrors they inflict upon others. It’s clearly the centrepiece of the series (tellingly, it’s the one selected by Refn to screen at Cannes ahead of the series premiere) and consists of little more than a stream of taboos, either shown explicitly or mentioned in dialogue as if Refn was working through a checklist – paedophilia, rape, necrophilia, snuff filmmaking, incest, sex trafficking, voyeurism etc (that Refn essentially groups sodomy to be part of these atrocities is very revealing of the series’ reactionary inner workings). The interminable length at which these repulsive acts are lingered upon points to the preening, self-congratulatory aspect of Refn’s cinema. Like all the worst provocateurs, Refn wants to get a rise out of his audience by showing us unpleasant things, but he does so in such a detached, calculated way that it’s hard to feel anything much at all; Refn dwells on these horrors with fetishistic delight, but all that registers is his own infatuation with the depravity of his own imagination. Every now and then, a character will pontificate about the fallen state of contemporary society, but there’s a crucial difference between art which registers genuine rage at the injustices rife in the modern world and one which simply wants to revel in the horror.
The few critics who have commended Too Old to Die Young have salivated over the opportunity to see the tight restrictions of serialized episodic television be challenged by an uncompromised, singular vision. Even now, in the so-called ‘golden era of television drama’, the director tends to be secondary to the writer and the showrunner, with dialogue and plot progression privileged over visuals or atmosphere (even in recent cases where genuine auteurs have helmed a prestige television series, it’s typically the case that they only direct the pilot episode to establish a ‘house style’ which is then imitated – and diluted down – by workman-like TV directors, as in Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire and Michael Mann’s Luck). Credit where credit is due: Refn’s series is the most audacious autuerist project to hit American television screens since Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return Episode lengths vary from 30 to 100 minutes, major characters appear and disappear at the drop of a hat, and the standard 5-act structure is rejected wholesale. Yet, where the mammoth 18-hour runtime of The Return gave Lynch a gigantic canvas to expand his creative vision, resulting in a fascinating experiment with the potentialities of long-form storytelling, Refn is merely recycles the same handful of visual gimmicks over and over again. The Return is a slippery, unwieldly beast, constantly unmooring the viewer and changing up its visual palette, whereas Too Old to Die Young is the work of a director unwilling to push himself artistically. Anybody who has seen any of Refn’s recent work will know what to expect: garish neon lighting, pointlessly inexpressive performances, rich in one-tone reds and purples; an overbearing synth score from Cliff Martinez; creeping dollies through seedy alleyways. There isn’t a single creative decision that is genuinely surprising, and the extended running time only underlines the paucity of Refn’s vision.
James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann is forthcoming with Telos Publishing. His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.