Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) has been causing controversy with his work for nearly a quarter century. Throughout his career, he’s been accused of everything from being a sociopath with a fixation on violence to outright hating women. If anything, his films are just a reflection of the disturbing world we live in as seen through Refn’s eye. Films like Drive (2011) put him on the map, but he was never going to stay mainstream. His films elicit an extremely strong, often visceral reaction. That’s all that seems to matter in the end to the Danish atueur. It doesn’t matter whether or not the experience was enjoyable to the audience, as long as they felt something. His new Amazon prime series Too Old To Die Young is perhaps his darkest work to date. Free from the constrictions of runtime and the MPAA, Refn conceived and shot Too Old To Die Young as a 13 hour film, as opposed to a series, taking a cue from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).
Nicolas Refn has always been enamored by the idea of Jungian archetypes. Many of his characters are stripped down to the very essence of what they’re supposed to represent. In Too Old to Die Young, he explores this fascination more than ever before. Some of the characters don’t even seem to need names. The series gives him time to really examine these types of archetypes; celebrate examine, subvert, and question why we need them in the first place. This is reflected in the titles of each episode. Whether “The Devil,” “The Hermit,” or “The Fool,” each episode dives into the very idea of these character types, often in many different forms throughout. This article will look at how these archetypes are used and represented and give some overall analysis of the first five episodes of Nicolas WInding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young.
Also the name of the pilot episode of Too Old to Die Young, Refn quickly shows that the Devil in reference is the world itself. Only in a show as bleak as this could officer Martin Jones (Miles Teller) rise up to be the hero. Refn loves his Jungian archetypes, especially that of the hero. Known for using as little dialogue as possible, the hero of most of Refn’s works are silent brooding individuals that are supposed to represent a balance in the world—an almost avenging spirit sent to protect the innocent. Dig deeper into his films and you’ll see that he has also always questioned the idea of the hero as often as he’s celebrated or been enamored by it. He’s in love with the hero, but he’s also terrified of the power that the archetype holds. In lightning rod films like Only God Forgives (2013), he completely subverts and often tricks audiences into rooting for truly heinous individuals.
Refn opens the show moving at a pace that is beyond slow. Los Angeles is a neon nightmare that is ruled over by fascist police. Nothing is really off limits. Rape, murder, and extortion are all just an extension of protect and serve. Too Old to Die Young is drenched in fear from the start as Martin and and his partner Larry (Lance Gross) are on patrol looking for young women to harass and pull over. Refn slows every excruciating moment down during the most uncomfortable scenarios, making it impossible to look away. Employing extremely long stylistic takes that make the ugliest of things look beautiful, Too Old To Die Young manages to disturb in a way that very few other works can.
As our world has gotten more and more bleak, so has Nicolas WInding Refn’s work. Too Old To Die Young may be the most nihilistic series/film of all time. Just who are the Devils? According to Refn, the entire world and just about everything in it. The Devil is in Martin’s partner Larry, who opens the series with a monologue about murdering his mistress as if he were reading stereo instructions, as Martin looks on bemused. It’s in the pornographers that rape children and preach fascism and Christianity in the heartland of Texas. The Devil is in the LAPD who in one scene take part in a group ukulele singalong about the Virgin Mary just after chanting, cheerleader-style: “Give me an F! Give me an A! Give me an S! Give me a C! Give me an ism! What’s that spell?!” You know the answer. The crowd goes absolutely wild.
The Devil is also in the hero of Too Old to Die Young: Detective Martin Jones. During that long dark night of an opening sequence, Martin helps shake down a 17 year old girl that Larry sexually harasses. It’s a terrifying scene. It’s really hard to tell which is actually scarier, Larry’s lustful eyes or Martin’s complete ambivalence towards the entire affair. In the end, Larry and Martin are satisfied with just taking the girl’s money; but the audience is supposed to root for this guy? It’s totally acceptable to wear the black hat or even root for the bad guy, but Martin becomes the archetype of the hero specifically. It’s a hard thing to digest.
From the start, Too Old To Die Young does everything it can to make the audience not be able to emotionally connect with Martin. He is certainly one of the Devils. He’s the reason why Larry is shot in the back of the head. It’s not a random spree killing, but payback from a kill for hire gone wrong years ago that involved the heiress of a Mexican drug cartel. Only Jesus (Augusto Aguilerra), the victim’s son, shot the wrong Devil. Martin goes to the people he really works for, a group of gangsters led by Damian (Babs Olusanmokun) in an ice rink constantly blasting vintage Jamaican ska, and ends up being forced into taking Larry’s place as their main hitman. He kills anyone that they want him to and feels absolutely no remorse about it. There’s a chilling scene where he murders a woman with a needle to the jugular before looking in on her sleeping children. It’s all over his face that he feels absolutely nothing before he even says so later.
Not to mention the fact that the hero of Too Old To Die Young is also having sex with a 16 year old girl named Janey (Nell Tiger Free) who comes with a schoolgirl uniform and a cocaine-addicted hedge fund manager father (William Baldwin). Martin is a cold-blooded murdering statutory rapist who doesn’t feel anything. He’s constantly searching for ways to fill a growing void in a meaningless, consumer driven world at the cost of whoever happens to be in his way. In other words, even the hero is the Devil in Too Old to Die Young.
Something changes when a murder falls into Martin’s lap. Don’t forget, he’s also still a homicide detective. He’s only moonlighting as a contract killer. Nicolas Winding Refn has put many one-eyed characters in his films. There have been arguments made that One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) from Valhalla Rising (2009), Chang (VIthaya Pasnringram) from Only God Forgives (2013), and now FBI agent turned pedophile killer Viggo Larsen (John Hawkes) from Too Old To Die Young are the same character reincarnated throughout time. There is a theory that all three represent the same character in each film: a silent warrior that fights not to right wrongs, but to restore balance to their little pocket of the universe.
When Martin catches the Larsen case, he easily has his print matched to a body left in the trunk of the car, but he finds out that the murder victim had raped eight boys as an orthopedist. Out of a bemused curiosity more than anything, Martin follows Viggo straight to partner: healer, freelance mystic, and contract pedophile murderer Diana (Jena Malone). After confronting them both separately, Martin meets Viggo for coffee, promising no arrest will be made. It’s a pivotal moment in both of their lives. Martin finally sees a clear purpose for himself and Viggo sees someone who can continue on his work when he’s gone. He feels just and right as he goes along with Viggo as backup on contract pedophile kills assigned from Diana; and also takes out pedophile Nazis of his own finding. He goes back to Damian and means it when he says “I want the worst ya got.” Get them he does.
The Hermit could be many things in Too Old to Die Young. The Hermit easily represents estranged FBI agent Viggo Larsen. He lives entirely off the grid, only popping up to make sure his health-addled mother is being taken care of. Unlike Martin, it seems that Viggo has too much of a conscience. After the shot in the head that cost him his eye, Viggo became a Hermit from society in a very literal way as well. No one Martin’s age remembers him, even though Viggo himself talks about working in conjunction with the LAPD decades ago. He and Diana work together doing what the law won’t do. Diana sees the law as another adversary that is set in their path. She’s also The Hermit in Too Old To Die Young.
The most obvious cinematic comparison to Too Old to Die Young is Twin Peaks: The Return. Nicolas Winding Refn has always cited David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) as a major influence, but he’s never made anything quite this Lynchian before. If The Return was, as Showtime boss David Nevins and others have put it, “pure heroin Lynch,” then Too Old To Die Young is pure black tar Nicolas Winding Refn. Every stylistic impulse the auteur has is embellished. Like Lynch, Refn uses the camera to create a sense of uneasiness and impending dread in seemingly normal situations. Scenes can be interpreted in many different ways, and Refn doesn’t seem to give a shit if anyone actually likes his work or not. The very fact that the filmmaker has locked himself away into his own highly stylized, violent version of the world that is always saved by a literal archetype kind of makes Refn The Hermit too.
Jesus (Augusto Aguillero), Larry’s killer, is The Hermit. He’s hid his entire life in America, estranged from his Mexican drug cartel family. It seems he was always hiding, waiting in the shadows for the perfect opportunity to put that gun to the back of Larry’s head, spreading bright red vengeance all over the streets of Los Angeles. As soon as he shows himself, Jesus goes back into hiding; this time returning to the Mexican drug cartel run by his uncle and joining its ranks. There is an entire episode dedicated to introducing the world in which Jesus goes from being a Hermit-like guest, to the right hand man of a new empire. Like the hero archetype, The Hermit will be seen over and over again throughout Too Old to Die Young. It applies to not only specific characters like Viggo Larsen, but also a larger statement about the disconnected state of the world that the series resides in.
At the end of the fifth and center episode of Too Old to Die Young, The Fool is most certainly the hero and devil the audience has some to know and love: Detective Martin Jones. In a surprise unprecedented move, Nicolas Winding Refn sent the 4th and 5th episodes of Too Old To Die Young to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. He wanted to prove that it didn’t matter where one started the series/film, nor did the filmmaker particularly care. Too Old To Die Young feels like the heir to Twin Peaks: the Return stylistically, but also because it’s ultimately uncategorizable. Is it a pulpy cop series about tough guys saving damsels in distress and protecting the innocent from Nazi pedophiles, gang bangers, and other absurdist caricatures of human filth? Or is Too Old To Die Young a meditation on the evil emptiness of the world itself? Is it an empty-headed candy-colored fantasy for lovers of hard R sex and violence? Too Old to Die Young is probably a little bit of all those things thrown into a blender and shot out back through Refn’s cinematic eye.
By the end of the fifth episode and the center of Too Old To Die Young, the fool in question is most certainly Martin Jones as he lay bleeding on the ground. After being mentored in the art of pedophile revenge killings from Viggo and Diana, Martin tells his new boss Damian that the only way he’ll continue doing the hits is if he’s given the worst guys that Damian needs killing. Damian is obviously the Devil, but he’s also The Fool as well. He seems to have zero concern for the monster that he’s made growing quite past his control in Martin, who is also a homicide detective that could cause him a lot of grief if not more. Larry was The Fool for thinking that he was more evil than this world; that all of his misdeeds wouldn’t end up an afterthought like a bug wiped from a windshield.
The audience could also quite easily be The Fool in question. Too Old to Die Young is polarizing to say the least, but its stories aren’t any different than the ones people tune in to their respective echo chambers to listen to every night. Lars Von Trier (Antichrist, The House That Jack Built) and Nicolas Winding Refn have long been at war with one another over who can make the most foolish statements to the press, so it can also be seen as a finger pointed right back at the artist. There’s Devils and Fools to be picked over everywhere in Too Old to Die Young, but after Martin Jones drives to Texas and murders a group of snuff film making Nazi Christian fundamentalist pedophiles in the series’ most action-filled episode of the first five parts, he is the Fool that Refn is most blatantly pointing at.
The Nazi pedophiles are definitely Fools themselves. It might be hard to believe that they would welcome a stranger into their midst so easily and invite him onto the set, but Martin Jones is a really “classically American looking handsome boy” that they obviously want to invite into their world. They’re absolutely brazen about their depraved criminality. After shooting one of three in the head, Martin could have left and driven back from Texas to California as fast and quiet as he drove down. There’s a thirst in him though, a hunger that can only be satisfied by killing. He waits in his car, shrouded in darkness, for the men to chase after him. The sequence goes on all through the night and into the next morning. It’s one of the most exhilarating car chases since his own Drive.
Martin seems to be less and less of a monster as Too Old To Die Young reaches it center. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the detective shoot the third victim in the road before he made a deal for his life in the first episode, but after teaming up with Viggo and Diana he views himself as an impartial hand of God or the universe itself’s own judgement. This delusion is ultimately what makes him The Fool, stabbed by a girl whose life he just saved. She had been buried in the Texas desert by the men that Martin had just hunted down from California. How does taking time to save this woman make him The Fool? In Too Old to Die Young, the last thing anyone seems to need to survive are any sort of positive feelings toward their fellow human beings. Even Martin as hero is still all about satiating his own need to kill. He just likes the idea of killing bigger pieces of shit than him. It’s a low bar for a hero, but he fits the archetype as Refn sees it nonetheless. The more human he allows himself to become, the more danger Martin is in of becoming just another pretty corpse in the city of angels.
Where Too Old to Die Young ultimately will take the audience from its center is still anyone’s guess. There has to be a collision down the road at some point between Jesus and Martin. It’s been hinted that Martin was actually the one who murdered Jesus’ mother years ago, not his LAPD partner Larry. Damian confronts Martin about this, but he denies it out right.
Martin will face Death, another symbol represented by a character to be discussed in a further article, and pay for the sins of his past. It seems he is actually already aware of and at peace with this. All he wants to do is continue to fulfill his purpose as an avenging angel because he’s never had one before. And he does it well. He is a ruthless, cold-blooded assassin like Viggo. Why not put that skill to killing Nazis and pedophiles instead of people behind on their shark loan payments to Damian? There’s still hours to go, themes to dissect, and characters as archetypes to take a closer look at in Refn’s new series/film Too Old To Die Young, which will be gone over in a second article next week. Come back for next week’s followup for a closer look at The Lovers, The Magician, and The High Priestess of Death and more in the second part of our coverage of Too Old to Die Young.