Too Old to Die Young. The image that does (not) die

«We split the atom. We broke the fabric of reality. That’s how far we’ve come. Now, the lights of our cities stretch further than the stars in the sky. But the more perfect society gets, the more psychotic we become. And as it waited, we became slaves to the systems we built.»

– Viggo Larsen (John Hawkes) in Too Old to Die Young, by Nicolas Winding Refn


An incredibly slow, barely tolerable 360° panoramic view lead us to the snowy outskirts of a Wisconsins’s city, initial setting of the third full-length Nicolas Winding Refn film Fear X (2003). There is a too fine line relating the two main financial failures of the film director from Copenaghen. Fear X’s purely postmodernist screenplay conceived by Hubert Selby Jr., with its thriller shapes and colours, throw us into the unknowable space of Harry’s (John Turturro) silent journey; unreal spaces architecturally built to catch inside them the protagonist and the audience. Both of them are brought to an end of disillusion and awakening from deception. Mentioning Karl Kraus’ aphorism dear to Benjamin: the smaller is the distance with which we look to an image, the bigger is the depth with which the image itself, addressing to us, will give us the answer. Nevertheless, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s last work, Too Old to Die Young (2019), the image seems to transmit just faint whispers, a deaf echo – “even shouting at you”.

Winning the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival 2011 thanks to the majestic Drive, the Danish film-maker doesn’t certainly need a presentation, rightly being one of the few contemporary directors able to think and investigate the cinema, to question the image. The same image that is moved from the big screen to the small one, with Too Old to Die Young, but not completely. The “tv series” appearance discloses, in fact, a project strictly related to the film-making: a 13-hours long movie, whose ten episodes are named after the Tarot.  It is not a random decision the one of presenting the work out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival’s 72nd edition, when the director-creator chose to project episodes four and five. In this respect, Refn affirms in an interview: “I like the chance we have with the streaming to skip from an information to another one. Too Old to Die Young is a conjunction of the cinema and the freedom of the streaming: it has been like fragmenting a big cloth into little pieces. What fascinates me the most is the possibility of watching it either continuously from the beginning to the end or jumping from an episode to another one not following the chronological sequence; I like this freedom, I consider it to be the essence of creativity. Surely, the streaming represents the future: the cinema is evolving, we need to embrace change”.

Except an episode of the british tv series Miss Marple, Too Old to Die Young, conceived and written together with the American cartoonist Ed Brubaker, is the first miniseries of the Danish director, who started the shooting on November 2017. The US giant Amazon, unexpected producer and distributor of the tv show, already at the end of July 2019 announced the cancelation of the tv series after it has just been premiered on the 14th of June. Just like the previous Refn’s work, The Neon Demon (2016), the tv series takes place in Los Angeles, presenting itself as an atypical thriller, an urban western that reveals the passion for Sergio Leone’s cinema. Along with Cliff Martinez synthwave, it is possible to remark the artistic photography and the extremely rigorous framing (so typical features of Refn film-making). The almost anthological narrative organization reminds us the trilogy Pusher (1996-2005), just like the reference to the criminal rhizomatic life of the outskirts and to a hidden, peripheral world. 

Episode after episode the audience of Too Old to Die Young is introduced into a sublime refnian space, with its overly slow, mechanical, at eye-level, Fear X-style 360° views. No final disclosure though, for a show that obsessively build a dimension just owned by the director : a stratification of independent and inevitable images. The imaginary, omnipresent architecture of Too Old to Die Young reminds us the concept of manhattanism introduced by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, which refers to the perception of unreality arising from the existence of a totally artificial space (“a urban Anthropocene”). These autarkic images represent an unspeakable, self-sufficient cinema more than other works of the north-European filmmaker and especially in the last episodes, the tv series create a connection with the third season of Twin Peaks (2017), David Lynch masterpiece, premiered at the Cannes Festival (almost two years earlier) and awarded as the best film of the year by «Cahiers du Cinéma». Nevertheless, if in the tv series-film of the dream master from Missoula the image is tied with the narrative (and vice versa), in Too Old to Die Young the plot, charged with sex, power and religion, becomes rarefied and its progression almost still, not remarkable, even if not enough to justify the supposed, detached freedom of the audience watching the episodes. This freedom rightfully belongs to the spectator, in case he is inclined to accept a reduction of the meaning, an inaccurate and incomplete fruition of the tv show. As the cause-effect links become weaker and weaker, Too Old to Die Young seems to carry out a slight and probably vain research into time. The north-European film director makes jokes about reality, disrupting the time of the sequence shot and creating a new different one. The dialogues between the characters result quite emblematic in this regard, often reduced to an endless silence sometimes interrupted by few words. But if Deleuze image-time remains unsolved, even Chantal Akerman, Béla Tarr or Abbas Kiarostami cinema can’t “help” the Danish filmmaker, whose film-tv series doesn’t accept compromises aiming at protecting the beauty of its images.

Neither in the tribute to the iconic and powerful end of Zabriskie Point the images of Winding Refn are able to effectively denounce the consumerist and supremacist USA to its collapse. If in the previous The Neon Demon the images appear self-referential, in the last work just the image itself survives in the refnian space, protected by magnificent shooting.

Too Old to Die Young represents the last step in the research of Nicolas Winding Refn, nowadays busy in the screenplay writing of his new flim and in the coproduction as showrunner of Les Italiens, Italian noir tv series adapted from the novel by Enrico Pandiani. Also interested in reproducing old movies, old images, at the end of 2018 the north-European film director launched his own streaming online platform: byNWR. The image that does (not) die. On the other hand, the audience, just like the corrupted detective Martin Jones (Miles Teller), kind of a contemporary antihero, feels like staying in an empty cinema watching at an alter ego of himself on the big screen, that carries out already done actions. But, as Refn maybe would say, the already seen images are deprived of every beauty.