Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young brings to life hard-core violence in beautiful stylistic fashion. The characters feel more like Jungian archetypical stereotypes than actual human beings and the world is a dark bleak place where vigilantism is the only true justice left. In my last piece I looked at the first five parts of what Refn calls his new 13 hour film through a lens of episode titles that also serve as reference points for the different archetypes throughout the series. This week, the coverage will move on to the second half of Too Old To Die Young while looking at some of the other main themes as expressed through the more mystical aspect of the Tarot, before taking a final look at the world itself of Too Old to Die Young and what it may possibly all mean after the end credits roll.
The Hanged Man
The Hanged Man in the Tarot represents the death of traitors. Most depict a man hanging upside down from a tree by his ankles. There’s further interpretations that specify the solemn expression worn by The Hanged Man Tarot card is an acknowledgement of self sacrifice. There’s even some variations that see the Hanged Man as a God who allowed this to happen to himself in order to gain knowledge about the world. The most clear representation of The Hanged Man in Too Old To Die Young is who was set up to be an unlikely hero in the first half of the series/film: LAPD Homicide Detective turned contract pedophile/serial rapist killer Martin Jones (Miles Teller). Last Martin was seen (at the end of Episode 5) he was living out the archetype of The Fool, lying bleeding in the desert. The rest of his journey throughout the back half of Too Old to Die Young sees him attempting to embrace his future as Viggo Larsen (John Hawkes) and Diana (Jena Malone)’s protege as his past sins in the murder of Jesus’ mother are fastly coming from the South to haunt him.
Martin increasingly lives a double life throughout the series until he is entirely out of options. He’s a product of the post-moral world that Ren has created. There are almost two completely different Martins. There’s the man who sees himself as righteous and just as he goes on hunting sprees with Viggo, taking out the world’s garbage (as they see it) and protecting the innocent. On the other hand, he lies to both Viggo and Diana about the fact that his girlfriend is underage, making him part of the evil of the world that they would want to be rid of…if only they knew. The Los Angeles in Too Old to Die Young feels like it’s sitting right on top of Hell, or maybe it’s the other way around. What difference does it make when someone like Martin Jones is the hero?
Martin is already a stone-cold killer by the time he hooks up with the righteous ones, depending on your world view. It’s as if Martin grows a conscience as the show goes along. There’s no denying his bloodlust though, and there’s no denying that he gets off on the idea that he’s helping to rid the world of pedophiles and rapists. The real heroes in his circle are Viggo and Diana however, representative of The Lovers in the Tarot. The Lovers usually can represent, in terms of romantic relationships, a choice or a sacrifice that must be made, or some sort of temptation looming on the horizon that will in some way need to be addressed. Viggo is the truest representation of the card as he gave us his life as a G-Man for the FBI to truly serve out biblical justice to those that destroy innocence. He also loves Diana because she acts as a voice for the innocent who have lost their voice, as shes loves him for being her harbinger of doom. They make Martin holy, not the other way around.
In his spare time Martin manages to kill Janey’s creepy yet innocent (at least for this show) father (William Baldwin) after he threatens to get Martin in trouble for statutory rape. This speaks to the Hanged Man’s traitorous nature as well as Martin’s own dual self. As many pedophiles and rapists that Martin takes out of the world who are actively doing horrific things to children, he always escapes atonement for his own sins. He starts out the show a woman harassing highway patrolman of the LA County Sheriff’s Office that’s already a murderer and only glides up easily to homicide detective from there without uttering so much of a word of indifference. Not to even mention that he’s guilty of statutory rape. This may rub some the wrong way.
Martin has good intentions deep down, but it’s buried and twisted by the world in which he lives. If found by Viggo and Diana slightly younger, it’s easy to imagine that he wouldn’t have had to be sacrificed in the end for his past mistakes. Martin could have lived out a life killing those more deserving, taking up Viggo’s work when VIgoo finally succumbed to his ever-increasing health problems. Eventually though, every dog does have his day, and Martin is in no way an exception. For killing Jesus’ mother Magdalena in a botched robbery with Larry years ago, he is whipped for days and finally beheaded with a machete. He lives just long enough to learn that Jesus had Janey shot in the face, just as his mother was shot by Martin. Lights out. for Martin. Game over.
The High Priestess of Death
Just arrived back in Los Angeles is Jesus (Augusto Aguilerro) and his beautiful new bride Yaritza (Christina Roldo). Jesus is there to take back everything that was stolen from him when Martin murdered his mom. He’s one of the most beautiful Greek God-like individuals ever to be captured on film, and Refn treats him like a living breathing canvass to paint on. Jesus shimmers with gold as he talks big plans in his designer clothes about taking over the entire drug trade with torture, violence, fear, rape, and murder. He has a vision of himself as a god, and his a formidable criminal. He’s still nothing compared to his wife.
Yaritza was the nurse of Jesus’ uncle that gave him refuge after killing Larry (Martin’s partner whom was thought to had killed Jesus’ mother). She was brought home by the Don’s son as a prostitute and stayed on as his nurse because of her striking beauty. By the time we meet her in Too Old To Die Young she is not only the lady of whatever house she’s in, but she’s also the physical embodiment of God/the universe’s vengeful right hand. The High Priestess of Death was born in the desert into a world of fire. Death follows her and she is indeed something more than human. She is a folk hero to Mexican girls forced into prostitution who believe that someday the High Priestess will someday come along and save them. They’ve even written a lovely folk song about her that fills the air before she takes out another room full of gangbangers who abuse, sell, and rape women…even men that work for her and Jesus.
In terms of the Tarot, The High Priestess if read one way can show intuition or some secret knowledge that is usually associated with femininity. Yaritza definitely checks the box here. She is as wise and mysterious woman who carries the deadliest of secrets with her everywhere she goes. On the flip side it can also be clouded if read in reverse and full of secrets and withdrawn. Yaritza definitely lives up to the reverse reading of The High Priestess Tarot as well. She lives out a life of luxury as a drug cartel’s wife who in secret sets free all of their women and violently kills any number of men who try and hurt them. In one of Too Old To DIe Young‘s best sequences, she follows a group of men who have purchased Jesus’ women for the evening to a seedy hotel full of white men and suit and ties, as well as swastika and jackboot. It matters none to her as she lives up to the folk hero status of The High Priestess of Death, acts as God’s true hand of vengance, and sets all the girls free after a bloody rampage of stylistic violence over Cliff Martinez’ (Drive) is pulsating score.
Ranking just under the fact that the main hero of Too Old To Die Young is a fascist leaning statutory rapist murderer for hire on the hard to swallow scale is Yaritza and Jesus’ relationship. As the series progresses Yaritza has a supernatural ability to summon feelings that his mother Magdalena’s ghost is actually in the house, waiting for Jesus to come find her. In one surreal scene at their mansion in Los Angeles, Jesus sees his mother’s hands disappear down a hallway beckoning him to follow. When he makes his way down the hall instead of finding his mother’s corpse or more likely Yaritza, he finds a beautiful yellow and white snake that he proceeds to take to bed with him to sleep. He admits the sexual relationship he has with his mother before her death to Yaritza, and she leads him into her arms by playing the role of mother and lover, seeming to know just what he needs in every situation.
What exactly is Nicolas Winding Refn saying about the world with Too Old To Die Young? A lot of that will be debated and open to interpretation but there is a sense that society has reached beyond a point of no coming back. There is a great speech from Viggo to Martin, explaining his and Diana’s philosophy for killing the people that they do, by showing how empty and fractured the world has become. It is only getting worse. Diana, who sees visions and has supernatural abilities herself, sees a vision of Yaritza the moment that Martin is killed and knows that it is a turning point in the entire universe. It isn’t a small moment for her. Viggo, who is near death by the end, has one last stand at a trailer park camp that was built for pedophiles. He has a field day with his shotgun as a triumphant symphony blares as the score of the show. Whether or not one agrees with Too Old to Die Young’s revelry in such violence is missing the point. There’s a genuine belief amonst Viggo and Diana that they are doing the universe’s dirty work, and it seems to be backed up by higher beings and visions as well.
Refn creates the bleakest of worlds in Too Old To Die Young that is lost in fascism, gang violence, and sexual perversion like pedophilia and statutory rape. There are so few true good guys that it’s easy to confuse protagonists that emulate goodness like Martin as a real hero. He’s barely human though and it isn’t hard to imagine that he would bend anything toward his will in the name of self-preservation, which the show itself professes is the ultimate law.
The idea behind all of this 13 hour epic of violence seems to be that it’s too late for the world that we all live in. It’s an absurd, comically fascist world run by morons and degenerates that will only heal itself when it is fully washed away clean in blood. The High Priestess of Death comes to Diana in a vision naked, walking on fire and espousing just such sentiments that Diana will then and acknowledge out loud to herself (and the audience). Viggo recrutis Martin by explaining that society needs someone to protect the innocent.
Of course, these ideas are taken to their extreme in Too Old To Die Young and in the real world maybe it shouldn’t be left up to vigilante killers to fill in the gaps when the legal system fails to give rapists and pedophiles some semblance of justice. It’s a provocative notion that murder is acceptable as a societal cleanser by any means, especially in Too Old to Die Young, a series that is supposedly against fascism. Maybe the truth is that the entire new Nicolas Winding Refn series/film itself is one big parody of what we all think we want in a hero itself and that the world has indeed become an absurd fascist place, or maybe always has been. Too Old to Die Young is beautiful and cold, leaving viewers in a state of cold admiration. Look deeper into the work and one may find an artist who has always been accused of struggling with his female characters finally creating one to live on through the ages, when all of this has been left to dust.