Refn has to be forced to watch his own films, and he begrudgingly sat through the two-episode Cannes preview with Lola beside him. During his last Cannes appearance with The Neon Demon, Refns on-screen violence goaded viewers. Late in the film, an aspiring 16-year-old model (Elle Fanning) is murdered in a swimming pool, butchered, and then cannibalized by three other models, one of whom later coughs up Fannings eyeball and then stabs herself with a pair of scissors; another picks up the vomited eyeball, eats it, and returns to a photoshoot. The audience booed. One man reportedly yelled trash in Spanish. Another fainted. (Refn's wife told him it was her favorite work so far).
After Too Old to Die Young finished at 1:00 AM, however, Refn received a six-minute standing ovation-a reaction similar to that of his 2011 hit film Drive, for which he won Cannes Best Director Award. Refn says his happiest surprise of the night, though, was Lolas enthusiasm; she laughed multiple times during the screening. Shes fucking sophisticated, Refn says, proudly. Shes fast. She reads all the signs and subtexts.
Beneath those signs and above its subtexts is a largely straightforward story: the series, which premieres on Amazon Prime on Friday, June 14, sends L.A. cop Martin (Miles Teller) on a dozen-hour-long killing spree, gunning down the worst men: pedophiles, rapists, kidnappers, etc.
Im not running for office, Refn says, anticipating criticism. I don't need to be presentable or acceptable. Refn leans into his final words with a Danish accent that grows more pronounced and f-bomb-laden as he grows impassioned. He has the habit, too, of punctuating his sentences with brother or man, as in Im here to entertain you, man, or Im here to give you a spectacle, brother.
Im not running for office. I don\'t need to be presentable or acceptable.\"
Refn is often accused of being arrogant and bombastic, and it can be difficult to discern which of his comments are sincere and which are simply trolling (a grinning Refn once told William Friedkin on camera that Drive should be ranked beside Citizen Kane). Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Refn will compare himself to Picasso and call creativity more powerful than a nuclear bomb. But his statements always feel more earnest than egotistic. Refn is unabashedly himself (I make what I make) and very clear on how others should judge his work: like Lola and the teenagers-which is to say, they should fucking take it or leave it, brother.
If my kids don't like something, they dont spend hours telling me whats wrong about it, Refn says. They just go, ehh, didnt go for it. Great. On to something else bigger and better. Lets go.
Refn says he makes films for the teenagers, because they tend to be more curious, more reactionary, and more likely to embrace extremes-going for it, or not. Hate and love alone are boring, he says, like good or bad, or what he unapologetically refers to as cheap Chinese food. Refn wants love, welcomes hate, but he thinks having both is sublime. Im narcissistic, megalomaniacal, and self-indulgent-because thats the DNA of creativity. Creativity is not about being likable. Creativitys purpose is to become divisive. Its to create dialogue. Thats what it does. And in order to create dialogue, people need to disagree. Polarization, to me, is the key. Thats the definition of success.
Luckily for Refn, his films are about as disagreeable and polarizing as art comes. And Refn wants no part in clarifying them. The danger with creativity is when it becomes explanatory, he says. All I do is channel my emotional reactions to things around me.
Those things around Refn at the time of writing Too Old to Die Young included his move to Los Angeles (and America), raising two daughters, as well as the 2017 social climate. And Refn admits that if anything, the film is a political reaction.
Indeed, Too Old To Die Young plays out like a kind of #MeToo revenge thriller, one set against an action backdrop of assassins including mafiosos, sicarios, yakuza soldiers, and gangsters. Moody and grandiose dialogue between characters suggest that men are responsible for a kind of collapse. Cathartic vignettes then depict acts of retribution. In one, a character tells of a man who rapes his own daughter. The speaker then walks over to the car in which the man sits and executes him through the window with a pocket knife.
Im Scandinavian. Were taught to treat women with utmost equality and respect, Refn says. Nothing enrages me more than seeing women not being treated as complete equals on a human level. Theres probably a bit of subconscious thrown in there from my end. I dont run from that.
Nothing enrages me more than seeing women not being treated as complete equals on a human level.
Refn was born in Denmark and moved to New York City shortly after his parents divorce. He is dyslexic and has said he didnt learn to read until he was thirteen. Film was Refns literature, and he broke into Danish cinema after his 1996 debut film Pusher, a gritty, documentary-styled tale of drug-debt repayment. It was the first of many films focused on violent, silent men-played by everyone from Tom Hardy to Mads Mickelson to Ryan Gosling-men who navigate underworlds, pursuing catharsis, freedom, and revenge. Their relationships with women are either non-existent or greatly strained. They do a lot of sinning.
Too Old To Die Young seems to be-in a weird, no-less violent way-a reflection on these types of men. Of course, Refn would never say this outright. Talking about his films is hard work, man. He wants them to speak for themselves. But hell also entertain debate.
When pressed about the potential backlash over depicting so much violence against women, Refn brings up a scene from a middle episode. In it, a man sits uncomfortably in front of a rape pornographer before being ordered to suck his own thumb and then set upon my several older men. What about that guy, the poor guy who gets abused and ridiculed sexually by other men? Refn asks. Doesnt he also have a voice? Was that the intent of that scene, to show this? No, he says coyly. Im just bringing it up. Since you're not bringing it up. Shouldn't there be some equality here?
Whether or not Refn has a thematic agenda, hes certainly not afraid of misinterpretation. Look, people throw words [like misogyny] around, because theyre easy, he says. But it doesnt always mean they understand what they write.
Did Refn ever worry that his daughter might misinterpret his film, or be offended by it? Offended? Refn laughs. We're Scandinavian; we don't get offended.
Refn explains that his shocks and offenses are necessary parts of entertainment, like a roller coaster ride that plummets into freezing water. Refn wants to wake us up. We live in a world where we're so obsessed with painless, he says. We are shielded. We walk with so much armor around us. Art penetrates the armor, triggers us, brings out our worst memories, goads and inspires. Or as Refn puts it: You can love it. You can punch it. You can strangle it. You can fuck it. You can scream at it. You can cuddle it. Just so long as you react and feel something.
Reactions so far have been positive (in the Refn lexicon). The Guardian called the series just as horrible and upsetting as youd expect, a quote that Refns team loved so much, they slapped it onto a promo video. Refn, however, doesnt seem to pay much attention to critics. He never discusses his work with friends or family. His mom, he says, has to call him whenever he makes the news. He simply wakes up. He plays Legos with his kids. He surfs Youtube when hes cooking lunch. He takes criticism ... and he leaves it.
You can love it. You can punch it. You can strangle it. You can fuck it. You can scream at it. You can cuddle it.
The ones who critique me, they seem to critique me in the same way every time. I always wonder: do they ever think that Im actually going to change because of that? Am I going to take notes and go, Oh, I got it now? It's like: what the fuck? These critics who try to educate me; all Im saying in my mind is: brother, or sister, it aint for you. Its for the teenagers, because they dont have the same fucking obsession about what is right and wrong with art. To the teenagers. Amen, brother.