Bronson. 2008. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay by Brock Norman Brock & Refn.
Starring Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Amanda Burton, Kelly Adams, Juliet Oldfield, Jonathan Phillips, Mark Powley, Hugh Ross, Joe Tucker, Gordon Brown, & Charlie Whyman. Str8jacket Creations/Vertigo Films/Aramid Entertainment Fund.
Rated 14A. 92 minutes.
Time and again I say it: Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the directors working today whose mix of influences bleed into his talent in the perfect shade, making him a passionate artist forging his own path while still showing love for those who came before him, and above everything an uncompromising auteur. Lots of so called fans only came on after Drive became a big, unexpected hit. It’s a great flick. Not his best, though, despite being so awesome. There are a bunch of other amazing pieces of cinema that came before it, such as the Pusher trilogy, Bleeder, Fear X, and certainly this whopper of arthouse film, Bronson.
What’s lovely about Refn is that, though his style is singular and always apparent each of his movies takes on a vastly different type of world and story. That makes his electronic-score driven, gorgeously framed, dark style almost perfectly suited for the story of the world’s most infamous prisoner, Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy) a.k.a Michael Gordon Peterson. This is a true story. Well, sort of. Refn is able to provide the surrealist atmosphere for the plot to play out in the right sense. We’re never quite sure if what’s occurring in front of our eyes is truthful, a part of Bronson’s built up and enhanced self image, or if Charlie’s actually full-on mad. The screenplay from Refn and Brock Norman Brock lets us escape into the mind of a man who defines ‘product of the system’ in a way that’s never before been allowed with other prison films. And for all Refn’s excellency as director, Bronson is so effective due to the tornado force performance out of Hardy. He is a revelation and one worthy of every bit of hype the media gives him. Hardy and Refn together with the foundation of a character like Bronson, an unbelievably real man, makes for one of my favourite films post-2000.
Something I love about this story is what Roger Ebert echoed in his review of the film. The fact Refn and Brock make no attempts to explain away the behaviour of Bronson is exactly what makes the movie enjoyable. At his core, Peterson – who took the name Charlie Bronson as a fighting name – is a horrid sort. You can’t always use that label I previously mentioned, product of the system, as a way to rationalise the actions of bad people. Sure, Peterson was likely changed into who he ultimately became because of his incarceration and the time he spent institutionalised. However, I truly feel that in his heart Peterson has the seed of evil. Maybe not full-on evil, but certainly of badness. He’s not a relentless murderer. Yet a dangerous individual no less. His incessant fighting and rage is a plague, on him, as well as more importantly on everyone around him. So I find there’s a fine line drawn between making an excuse for someone who’s a ward of the system, essentially, and someone who could very well just have on real conscience or concern for growing as a person, other than in the sense of physical growth in order to be the best fighter possible.
In turn, Hardy makes the central performance vibe well with the intentions of the overall story and its themes. He gets the character right in terms of the swagger, the mentality and the outright madness. He is physically intimidating, he’s also funny and charming in a brash way. There’s a ton of different feelings you get about Charlie throughout the runtime of the movie, and Hardy is always pushing you. There are moments you don’t think you’re meant to laugh, but you do. There are moments that you’re not sure if fear is the appropriate response; it is, very much. And most of that is Hardy bending the screenplay to his will. Making the character memorable and fierce. There’s not a single shot where Hardy isn’t making you think or compelling you further into the personality of Bronson. Whether that’s a good thing, you be the judge.
Another aspect that’s interesting to me is the idea of celebrity and persona. Peterson becoming the alter-ego of Charles Bronson is the first shift in his identity where we see that he’s to become a celebrity. Or more so that he’s to become famous, or infamous is the best way to describe it. The surrealism of the script, jumping from one mad scene to the next, is what brings everything out, as the larger than life persona is represented admirably via the stage play moments. As Bronson recounts to us his life he becomes the circus ring leader, the lead performer – at once he’s the star of the show, the next he’s a different character with lipstick and manicured nails and drawn on hair to boot.
These scenes allow us to look into the confused identity that is Bronson, the man formerly known as Michael Peterson. “You can‘t tie that up in a nice little pink bow,” an art instructor tells Charlie about the picture he’s drawing, a perfectly poignant commentary on the man himself: “Nah you can‘t pin me down, mate,” replies Bronson. Best of all, those stage play scenes give us a window into the soul of Charlie, as we fully understand how lonely the man is and what drives him: he needs, and wants, an audience. After so much time alone stuck in cells and having only time inside his own head, that stage is both an escape from this life, and it’s also a cry for help, the want for an audience. Maybe that’s all he ever needed; not incarceration, but rather attention, care, kindness. We’ll never know, though, and this is part of why I love the film. Refn gives us plenty upon which to ruminate. He never proposes any answers, nor does he make it seem like that’s his aim. His objective here is to fall into the headspace of the truly veritable headcase that is Charlie Bronson.
This one is at the top of my Refn list. I’m a fan of every last bit of his work. He is a very interesting director and writer. His style is tons of fun, it is vibrant and always compels you to keep you watching, if only to figure out what’s about to happen next, and how it’s going to be expressed. Bronson is one of his more surreal efforts, in line at times visually with Valhalla Rising in its strange beauty. Tom Hardy can get into the skin of any character. He relishes every moment as Bronson, putting his heart and soul and limbs into each scene. Not many actors are willing to get naked and pain themselves, have their ass greased with butter (and by another man), to fully commit themselves to the insanity of a role such as that of Charlie; Tom is one of those few actors that can go to the lengths required. There are many times you’ll wonder where exactly the plot is moving. Let’s just say it never goes far. But not every story has a plot that moves in the typical fashion from Point A to B to C through to a nicely wrapped finale. Bronson is a series of scenes that accurately depict the loneliness, brutality, and all around uncontrollable personality of a man you’d never in a million years believe to be real, if he weren’t so well known. Along the way you’ll laugh, you will cringe. All appropriate reactions. This is a character study which pulls you along on the tails of music (from the atypical Refn electronics to popular classical pieces) and violence featuring one of the greatest performances you’re likely to ever witness.