Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008)

Bronson, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) in 2008, is loosely based on the true story of Michael Gordon Peterson, who later changed his name to Charlie Bronson to better promote his brief bare knuckle boxing career. Petersen rose to fame by becoming Britain's most notorious and dangerous prisoner; a man who openly declared to love prison life and spent 34 years of his life behind bars, most of which was restricted to solitary confinement. This is a biopic, but it feels totally unlike any other biopic I have ever watched. The film has an added entertainment value, a blurring between comedy and sick horror, as Peterson personally narrates the film and recounts significant events in his life, broken up by a bizarre performance in front of an auditorium full of people.

Despite being raised in a respectable British middle-class family, Peterson (portrayed in repulsive fashion by British actor Tom Hardy, likely only known from Inception), was an extremely volatile man by nature who deliberately provoked fights with other prisoners and guards, and held a self-appointed lack of respect for anyone and anything. His success in standing up to the prison authorities caused the other inmates to worship him as a hero. Unable to be controlled, he was thrown around the British prison system in the hope that each subsequent facility could find a means to control him and a method to make him conform. But what can you possibly do with a man who willingly thrives in the prison system and has such an immunity to pain and fear? He is eventually sent to a psychiatric ward, where he is administered strong sedatives to keep him under control whenever he disobeyed or sought violence. He is moved again after he attempts to strangle a fellow inmate.

He is finally released on parole, but not before starting a large-scale riot at a different high-security psychiatric hospital and being branded "Her Majesty's Most Expensive Prisoner." Peterson spends 69 days on parole, where he briefly makes a name for himself (as Charles Bronson, after the film star) in the world of bare-knuckle boxing, before he is arrested again for the theft of an expensive engagement ring. Back in prison, Bronson continues to behave in a nihilistic and Godless fashion, seeking to uproot the system and repeatedly finding himself the victim of more severe punishment. But the latter half also follows Bronson down a more sophisticated path, as he becomes interested in art, and finds a natural talent. But even this brief endeavor is destroyed by Bronson's destructive state, and the film ends informing us that the man, at the time, is still in prison, and has not been granted a release date.

I want to quickly look at how the film portrays the events for the audience. It is told from the perspective of Bronson, at an age he seems to adopt for the entirety of the film. He is in prison a long time, but his appearance changes very little. They are captured, almost like memories or reminisces, from a theater staged seemingly within Bronson's deranged mind. Key moments are projected onto a screen for this audience, and Bronson, the face-painted performer (his own projection as a famous entertainer) provides entertaining explanations. In this way, the violence, which is consistent throughout, and brutal, is less sadistic, and more like a performance. In many instances, he sits and waits in his cell (often naked) for the authorities to enter, where he proceeds to unleash his violence upon them. It is glorified, and often portrayed in slow-motion. We then later see him bloodied and cut, and held pitifully in restraints like an animal. He never shows any remorse, nor any emotion.

Bronson is such an interesting character, and Tom Hardy's performance here is absolutely incredible. He is likely only known for his small role in Rock N' Rolla, or more recently Inception (where he was very good), but this is a tour-de-force performance, and one that has been sadly overlooked. He had to undergo a massive physical transformation to pack on the muscle required to convincingly play the role, and the result is a very gutsy portrayal, and one that is truly memorable. Opposing his rare but present charming sensibilities, we see horrific bursts of aggressiveness, presented through swift shifts in facial expression. Hardy's face explores a plethora of emotions here. The man's anarchic, nihilistic and psychopathic intentions are explained, in often sickly comedic fashion, through Hardy's deranged and charismatic performance. Bronson explains that he always wanted to be famous, and is always seeking attention. You get the impression that his entire life is comprised of performance. In a pair of notable sequences we see Bronson hold his librarian hostage, and forces him to rub war-paint over his naked body in preparation to fight the approaching riot officers, and later, when he holds his art tutor hostage, he covers himself with black paint and forces the Wardent to play music for him, while he paints his constrained and hapless tutors face.

The sequences where Bronson is addressing the crowd in an assortment of painted face designs, is an extension of his will to 'perform' and it seems like these sequences are a very unique way to present this quite repellent tale. But it is a technique that keeps the film thoroughly entertaining throughout and relatively engaging. If we were to see Bronson's life chronologically presented, beginning with his childhood and culminating in his final prison days, it would have proven to be monotonous and dull. With this mode of narration, time seems nonexistent, and we are thrust into key moments, and receive entertaining and insightful commentary as we go. It's a really indescribable experience, but i thought it worked quite effectively. I haven't seen any of Nicolas Winding Refn's other films, and I have read mixed comments about Valhalla Rising, but Bronson, though extremely intense, is definitely worth checking out for Tom Hardy's sensational performance.

My Rating: 4 Stars


  1. Excellent review,
    I recently watched and reviewed this as well!
    It's a rather sick but very entertaining film, and Tom Hardy was brilliant...

    And I wouldn't really recommend Valhalla Rising, it's about as boring as Bronson is entertaining.

  2. This isn't my cup of tea but I'm intrigued to see Hardy's phenomenal performance. WOW, he's almost unrecognizable with that physique!

  3. It's a pretty deranged film, but a really interesting way to tell a biopic. Tom Hardy is just phenomenal. He puts on about 40 pounds of muscle, and is naked for half the film. Really risky stuff, but it sure got him recognised. He was great in Inception too, i thought.

  4. Yes, I notice him way more than any other actors in Inception, including Leo. Glad he's going places, Hollywood needs more charismatic actors like him.

  5. Good catch with Bronson's ageless appearance --- I completely missed that. I agree that the film was entertaining and Hardy was pretty great, but I thought Refn's direction felt like style for the sake of style.

  6. I wanted to like this one. But i lost interest in it soon after starting it. I just didn't see a point to it.

  7. @ Brian - Yeah, I certainly understand that take on the film. I would like to watch it again, now that there have been an influx of reviews for the film following the LAMB: MOTM.

    @ dirtywithclass - I was never bored, and it was predominantly due to Hardy's charismatic performance. Refn infuses the film with plenty of style, but it doesn't really deal with too much memorable material, so I understand what you mean. I enjoyed it, though.

  8. After seeing him in Warrior, this seems promising. I also just watched Drive, which is another work from Refn. Another movie on the watch list!

  9. You should give it a watch. It's pretty out there. I have seen Drive; it's a better film than this, but also very different. Refn's style is evident and Tom Hardy is unreal.