The genre of violence for its own sake has been deeply explored in American cinema over the past 50 years, and adopted for better or worse by the most stylish of filmmakers who have followed in the footsteps of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.
But at this stage, it’s fair to ask what is the point when a talented filmmaker like Nicolas Winding Refn delivers an indulgent dive into nihilistic violence in “Too Old to Die Young,” an Amazon 10-part TV series whose first two episodes screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival this weekend?
What are we discovering here? Miles Teller plays Martin, a cop turned contract killer with a suitably chiseled profile but no discernible motivation for blithely shooting random people from the criminal underworld for pay (or, on those occasions when he’s really into the gig, for no pay).
Teller has almost no dialogue and in scene after scene stares into the middle distance with emotionless anomie, reacting neither to extreme violence nor to disturbing moments of sadism.
An early scene of a group therapy session for individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder defines the excruciatingly slow pace that persists throughout the two installments shown in Cannes. The camera moves oh-so-deliberately around the circle of participants in the discussion group (bathed in eye-hollowing shadow like many scenes in the series) with the session followed by a jolt of parking lot bloodshed.
The stultingly slow pace gives you plenty of time to wonder about the world that Winding Refn imagines, including the pastiche of apocalyptic right-wing radio, the “Fascism!” cheer at the Friday detective meet-up and a descent into rape-porn in Albequerque.
It’s a place where the sun rarely shines, where assassination targets routinely find themselves all alone in abandoned garages or dimly lit warehouses, conveniently available to be murdered. Even characters in the midst of conversation rarely look at one another.
The stylized use of shadow, the ominous sound effects and flickering neon recall Winding Refn’s earlier works, which have occasionally sparked controversy but have seldom matched the thrilling filmmaking of “Drive” in 2009.
“We evolved through brutality,” a radio host intones in the background of one scene, a hint to what Winding Refn may be aiming at. And John Hawkes as a mentor-killer accompanying Teller’s Martin offers this gem: “As the world fractures, someone has to be there to be protect innocence.”
In this world, women (of course) have the most marginalized roles imaginable. The series opens with a teenager preening on her bed for Teller, but we never find out why in these episodes. Jena Malone has a brief, non-sexual role as a champion for the cause of subversion.
Winding Refn flirts dangerously with ideas of violence and amorality until they seem to become their own cinematic ends. And take this for what you will, by the time the piece rolled around to the murder-porn plotline and a nameless girl buried alive in the New Mexico sands by two pornographer brothers, I was one of five women (all film professionals!) standing in the back of the theater, ready to bolt.