Friday, March 9, 2012

Movie Review: Bronson

Tom Hardy as Michael "Bronson" Peterson
Bronson (2008)
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Tom Hardy

"You don't want to be trapped inside with me, sunshine ...I am Charlie Bronson. I am Britain's most violent prisoner."

Dutch director Nicolas Winding Refn had a breakout year in 2011 with the cult success of Drive, his high-octane and stylish ode to violence. However, where Ryan Gosling's "Driver" was a silent brooder, the central figure in Refn's 2008 film, Bronson, vividly narrates his own exploits in increasingly bizarre fantasy sequences -- the star of his own show, where he's an artist and a hero to the downtrodden who responds to a roaring crowd only he can hear.

Loosely based on a true story, the film opens in 1974 just as a young hooligan by the name of Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy) is sentenced to seven years in prison for robbing a post office -- a jail term that ultimately turned into a 34-year stint after he committed countless other crimes (including murder) while incarcerated. Peterson achieved tabloid notoriety throughout the United Kingdom -- often referred to as "Her Majesty's longest-serving criminal." While behind bars, Peterson conceived his alter ego, Charlie Bronson -- snagging the name from the prickly American movie star. As "Bronson", Peterson retreated further and further into his wild fantasies as he was chartered back and forth between prison and a mental health asylum. There is no cure for his violent nature -- it's embedded in his DNA.

Bronson is a bizarre film whose success rests solely on the appeal of its star -- in this case, the rapidly rising up-and-comer, Hardy. In a film that is essentially devoid of any secondary characters (it's all Bronson, all the time), Hardy excels. With his intense glare and darkly comic one-liners, he's both frightening and hilarious. He portrays Bronson as a man so consumed by his anger that he gives no real reason or motive for his actions -- he simply is the way that he is and he makes no apology for it. It's impossible to pinpoint where his anger comes from considering he comes from a stable home with supportive parents. As he declares in one scene, "there was nuffin' wonky about my upbringing." His feral, animalistic nature propels him into numerous misguided fights against authority -- or is it all just anarchy for anarchy's sake? Even after being beaten into submission by prison guards and heavily sedated by asylum nurses, Bronson's inner beast refuses to be subdued. Like Alex DeLarge, the antihero of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Bronson is a lost soul rebelling against all that he confronts. You'd be hard-pressed to envision a better actor in the role -- having Hardy in the film was a casting coup and he's absolutely mesmerizing.

Hardy as "Bronson"
It would be easy to dismiss Bronson as emotionally empty; a film that chooses to glorify violence without delving deeper into the subject matter at hand. I'll admit that this sense of detachment and underwritten characters are two of the things I struggled with while watching both Bronson and Drive. However, amid all the violent sequences lies an interesting commentary that is, unfortunately, not fully explored: Is violence art? In some strange way, is Bronson expressing himself -- his inner torments -- through bouts of rage and destruction? He approaches the prospect of a fight with a welcoming smile, fists at the ready. He meticulously prepares for battle if he senses it coming -- preferring to fight completely in the nude, his body greased. He even holds off a slew of prison guards in order to finish painting (literally) one of his victims. When a fight is over, it's as though he's completed yet another masterpiece.

Refn's films carry a distinct style that borrows from other directors, yet still manages to feel completely original, almost operatic -- think Quentin Tarantino. Bronson is part black comedy, part psychedelic biography with shades of A Clockwork Orange, Requiem for a Dream and the sheer insanity of Natural Born Killers. His 80s-laden soundtrack only adds to the ludicrousness of the events unfolding on the screen.

However, if one were to take away the jaw-dropping and magnetic performance of Hardy, Bronson amounts to very little. Told through the eyes of Bronson, we understand that he's an unreliable narrator -- a violent being with a maniacal cackle. Yet, we are left wondering why we should care? Lets just be grateful that Refn let Hardy have free rein with the picture.



  1. Nice review, Laura! I remember that I didn't really know what to make of it when I watched it for the first time but I really enjoyed it the second time around. I guess I was expecting a more conventional biopic and not a portrayal such as Refn's.

    I wouldn't say that it's emotionally empty at all. It is hard to sympathize with Peterson because his outbursts seem so random and a mere means to seek attention. However, there is something tragic about his character because, like you said, he can only 'create' himself by destroying others. And there are moments of sadness within the character that ring through because of Hardy's stunning performance, frankly one of my favourite performances of all time.

    I also like Refn's approach to the subject. I don't think it glorifies violence per se, it rather explores our fascination with violent characters, because in the end, we as the watchers personify Bronson's imaginary audience.

    Oh, one thing, though, I think he never commited murder. Where did you get that information?

  2. Yeah, I'm assuming it's one of those movies that improves with repeated viewings. I'd definitely watch it again. There was a lot that was good about it, specifically Hardy's performance.

    What I mean by "emotionally empty" is that we never emphasize or sympathize with any of the characters. It's impossible to feel that way about Bronson because the film never delves into his psyche. It just felt all surface level to me, if that makes any sense. The secondary characters are just kind of there ...we don't really know anything about them. While watching Bronson I felt that was exactly what I was doing ...just watching. I wasn't given a real reason to care. As you said, the style is quite unique for a biography (some may even say alienating) and I think it was the way that the story was told that I found jarring and a little empty.

    There is definitely a sadness to it but I guess I just wanted a little more. I felt the same way when I watched Drive. I think it's just Refn's style and I gotta get used to it.

    I agree with what you said about it not glorifying violence. It's definitely more about our fascination with it.

    With regards to the murder: Remember the scene in the asylum when he strangled that inmate who kept bothering him when he was doped up? He comes up behind him and strangles him with a cloth and all the guards come in and drag him out.

  3. I can't believe it took me that long to reply. Sorry for that! However, I rewatched Bronson the other day and I think he doesn't actually kill the guy. In the stage sequence in which Hardy plays Bronson and that female nurse character, or whoever she's supposed to be, I think she says that the guy recovered. I also think that in real life Bronson never murdered someone. It would have been strange if Refn had portrayed him as a murderer. But maybe I got it wrong...