Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008) is a highly stylized and embellished film biography of a man known as the most famous prisoner in Britain. Born Michael Peterson in 1952 and raised mostly in the city of Luton, Charles Bronson, renamed after the American movie star, has spent all but a few months of the last 35 years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement.
The film, dominated by the bald, snarling and oddly charming presence of Tom Hardy in the title role, is not interested in sociological or psychological explanations. Bronson’s parents are quiet, respectable lower-middle-class types, fond of their son even as he finds himself in all kinds of trouble, and he seems to suffer neither deprivation nor childhood trauma. The propensity to do violence seems wired into him, less a pathology than a kind of talent. He does some stealing, but his real vocation, his art, is fighting.
At one point a warden seeks to understand this incorrigible inmate’s propensity for “nihilistic and godless behavior” and asks Bronson, who has developed a habit of taking hostages in his cell, what he wants from the authorities. The answer is an Anglo-Saxon imperative that pretty much sums up Bronson’s worldview.
And it is an attitude Mr. Refn, whose previous films include the vivid and vicious Pusher trilogy, presents with unnerving relish and flair. Sometimes Bronson speaks directly to the camera in front of a black background. At other times he appears in black tie and music-hall makeup in front of a theater full of appreciative patrons. His monologues are punctuated by exquisitely choreographed and art-directed scenes of brutality, shot from low angles and accompanied by soaring arias or throbbing techno beats.
The effect is a bit like Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange reimagined as a one-man stage show and stripped of any political implications. Bronson’s crimes become a kind of performance art, and the film becomes, bizarrely enough, the portrait of a genius misunderstood and marginalized by a bureaucratic and hypocritical social order.
Bronson invites you to admire its protagonist as a pure, muscular embodiment of anarchy. And perhaps you will, but you may also be glad that he’s still behind bars.
Review courtesy of The New York Times