BRONSON (Dir. Nicholas Winding Refn, 2009)
This brutal biopic is based on the life of convicted felon Michael Peterson, jailed for theft in 1974, who goes by the fighting name Charles Bronson (yes, named after the movie star then famous for DEATH WISH) and decides early on that he really likes prison. It’s a hotel for him filled with edge and excitement. However he attacks the guards so regularly that he spends much of his time in solitary confinement and then a stint drugged up beyond comprehension in a mental institution which he doesn’t like as much.
As Bronson, Tom Hardy tells his story on stage in the surreal setting of a ritzy theater with a formal attired audience hanging on his every word. At times different configurations of black and white performance face paint accompany scene changes as he speaks directly to the camera with his particular brand of menacing charisma. Still it’s hard to muster a desire to know a man who even in a childhood flashback is assaulting his school teacher with murderous rage.
Bronson does taste freedom as he is certified sane and takes up residence in a brothel. He falls in love with a young woman (Juliet Oldfield) but she tells him she’s in love with another man. This doesn’t deter him from stealing a ring for her which, of course, lands him back in the slammer. This isn’t presented as a heartbreaking fate for director Refn’s vision of 70’s England is just as grey and grim on the outside as it is behind bars. Bronson’s limited world view is actually a plus for a soul that can be battered and beaten beyond recognition, but never crushed completely.
The many comparisons critics have made to Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE are accurate, but BRONSON is strapped to the struggle of crimes against self instead of crimes against society. There’s not much real insight to Bronson as a man, but there doesn’t really need to be; he doesn’t so much deny apologies as he does tear them apart.
The inner nature of such a man isn’t what this film is truly about – if anything it’s about what Walter Sobchek would call “unchecked aggression”. Like its subject, the film is raw, uncompromising, and ugly. But don’t let that discourage you because it’s concurrently one of the most gripping and grittily entertaining movies of the year.