Too Old To Die Young: Nicholas Winding Refn and the strange rebirth of the auteur

Too Old To Die Young: Nicholas Winding Refn and the strange rebirth of the auteur

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The established wisdom is that auteur driven cinema went out with the binary 1-2 punch of Heaven’s Gate and Star Wars. Heaven’s  Gate was the foundering of the old New Hollywood ideal, unthinkable millions spent on an hours long artistic vision that nobody wanted to watch, whilst Star Wars was the future: dazzling special effects in the service of a glorified western that made all the money in the universe. Hollywood looked between the two options and decided enough with these self-indulgent artistes we’re going to go all in on the newly minted blockbuster. This wasn’t the end however, for awhile auteur driven material was able to scratch a living in the margins of the studio-system outside of the shoe-string indie purgatory swirling beneath their black leather boots. Mid-budget films that split the difference between blockbuster bloat and indie corner cutting still existed until the early 2000s. As a result the occasional Blue Velvet or Reservoir Dogs could sneak past based on the fact that the amount of money being gambled seemed pretty manageable, but alas declining revenue has led to ever increasing studio demand for big tent-pole movies starring various superheroes eventually squeezed mid-budget films out almost all together. 

These days’ movies are either backed up by an entire squadron of zeroes or they get made for the equivalent of a stick of chewing gum and a winning smile. There’s no middle ground and so those directors who refuse to modulate their art with any real concern for playing by the rules have found themselves for the most part found themselves shanghaied; literally in many cases, due the monetary importance and frequently censorious moral rectitude of the Asian market. Making movies for less than a used car might be an option for the young and desperate but acknowledged virtuosos tend to baulk at such a step down.  Increasingly they cast hungry eyes to the Golden Age of Television unfurling seemingly endlessly on the small screen. It can’t help but escape their notice how the streaming giants of Amazon and Netflix are seemingly happy to green light anything that might create the smallest amount of online buzz.

This is presumably how we have both ended up with and lost Nicholas Winding Refn’s Too Old To Die Young, a ten episode Grand Guinol nightmare from the director of Drive. Commissioned by Amazon, debuted at Cannes and then swiftly cancelled almost immediately after the first season was released, presumably they had made the mistake of actually watching the thing and were horrified at what they’d spent their money on. There’s still a market for the truly outré in genre work, which presumably has something to do with why the much maligned horror genre has become home to some of the most innovative filmmaking being undertaken today. Too Old To Die Young sees Refn take on the frequently horror adjacent ‘revenge noir’ format, think Double Indemnity crossed with sleazy exploitation work like Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, and explodes it into some kind of hallucinogenic horror. In Refn’s merciless hands endless pulsing neon shaded tracking shots are interrupted only by staccato flourishes of violence or flickering bouts of surrealism. His characters are seemingly totally disconnected from each other, the world around them and even themselves, with dialogue tolerated on sufferance.

There are certainly strong points in its favour beyond the aggressive stylisation, in particular Whiplash’s Miles Teller gives good blank and violent as a dead-eyed police officer investigating LA’s seamy underworld. The dreamlike atmosphere and tone mark the series out as a worthy companion piece to some of Refn’s more uncompromising works like Only God Forgives and Neon Demon. The problem is that particular pieces of cinematic aggression were 2 hour movies and as a television series Too Old To Die Young stretches to something like 13 hours. Refn’s made no attempt to modulate his style for the different medium. There are many truly singular television programmes being made today from Legion to Maniac which exploit the potential of the medium in bold new ways.  Famous auteurs who sweep down from the cinematic heavens and attempt to make a 13 hour movie are only going to succeed in alienating the audience by treating the art form as inherently lesser. There are many moments of stark, startling beauty in Too Old To Die Young, it’s just a shame that they’re so artificially spaced out by a director subtly contemptuous of the nature of his canvas. Still better than Love Island though.     

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