Since Twin Peaks: The Return aired in 2017 and opened up new possibilities for what TV can be, I've been waiting for a show to follow its lead. At the time, Twin Peaks felt like it could either be a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of experimental cinema and television, the most commerce-driven art form, that was only possible due to David Lynch's reputation and Showtime's momentary willingness to take a risk in a way no network probably ever would it again; or a dam-breaking moment where visionary creators could point to and say, "if this was on TV, anything is possible, so I will try to make television that is truly artistically challenging."
Two years later, it looks more like the former was the case, but there is finally a post-Return TV show: Amazon's Too Old to Die Young, a noir thriller from director Nicolas Winding Refn that brings arthouse cinema to streaming television.
TOTDY is not as purely abstract as Twin Peaks, but Refn, a Danish director best known for his hyper-stylized, hyper-violent underbelly-of-Los Angeles movies Drive and The Neon Demon, borrows some of Lynch's trademarks: shots of a highway through a car windshield at night, superimposed floating heads over scenes, meticulous sound design that makes near-constant use of a low, mechanized ambient hum. Less directly, he has a similarly visual-first auteurist sensibility. Refn returns to L.A. for another trip to the dark side lit by red neon and sunlight that feels perverse when it appears, like the stuff that's happening should only happen under neon lights. Miles Teller leads a large ensemble cast as Martin, a Los Angeles County sheriff with a sideline as a vigilante assassin. He and a former FBI agent named George (John Hawkes) kill rapists. George seems to believe that the end is nigh and Martin is some sort of angel of death sent to protect the innocent and bring about rebirth through destruction.
Martin is a killer with a code. He wants to predate the predators, and refuses to do hits for money or over unpaid debts. He has a teenage girlfriend named Janey, played by Game of Thrones' Nell Tiger Free, who is some kind of precocious creative genius with a wealthy producer father (Billy Baldwin). In the two episodes screened for critics, we learn almost nothing about Martin, who Teller plays with taciturn menace. Teller is nonetheless riveting, his dead eyes set in a boyish face beneath a Catholic school haircut. He embodies the title, a man who looks even younger than 30 whose soul is even more weathered than John Hawkes.
A note on the episodes screened for critics: Like the show's premiere at Cannes, the only episodes Amazon provided for review were, curiously, Episodes 4 and 5. The series will be 13 hours over 10 episodes, so it feels somewhat premature to offer a conclusive opinion based on two middle chapters. It's highly possible that what's great for two hours will be unbearable when stretched over 13. Too Old to Die Young is a very, very long Nicolas Winding Refn movie, which means it has a glacial plot, long silences, brutal violence, and a relentlessly bleak mood.
The show contains a lot of sexual violence that is hard to stomach, and many viewers will find it intolerable. Whether it's gratuitous and provocative for provocative's sake or in service of a larger purpose is up to the viewer, because Refn, like Lynch, is pulling images out of the American subconscious. "Emotions are far more complex when they're not answered, but they're just presented," he said in an interview with Deadline. "Because then it's up to you to either immerse yourself in it and be impregnated by it, or the opposite, destroy it or push it away. But no matter what, in both situations, it now travels with you for the rest of your life."
In that interview, Refn said this show is about his "sensibility about America," and it does seem to grapple more directly with ideas about America than his prior films. Martin's commanding officer leads the station house in a chant of "Fascism! Fascism! Fascism!" The America of Refn's Too Old to Die Young is a dying empire that refuses to realize it's collapsing, except for the enlightened few who know what's coming. America was built on violence, and it will return to that state, because that's the natural order. Our violent nature "laid beside us in our sleep, waiting," Hawkes' character says in a long, electrifying monologue. "And as it waited, we became slaves to the systems we built. Now it's all falling apart. Soon our cities will be washed away by floods. Buried in sand. Burned to the ground."
Too Old's co-creator is Ed Brubaker, an accomplished comics writer who has written notable Marvel titles but whose best work is in pulp comics like Criminal, which use the clichés of the crime genre to probe ideas about masculinity and the nature of violence and who survives in America. None of his crime comics have ever been adapted for the screen, but he's finally found a simpatico filmmaking collaborator in Refn. The hardboiled dialogue feels like Brubaker's, and it keeps the story from totally veering off into pure impressionism.
Too Old to Die Young is extremely not for everyone, and some people are going to really hate it, while others are going to think it's brilliant. (Whether it's sustained brilliance or moments of brilliance in what's often a slog remains to be seen once the season can be viewed as a whole.) But Refn says, "If you don't create polarization, then you have not touched the soul."
Too Old to Die Young premieres on Prime Video Friday, June 14.