There is a meticulous degree of staged composition in Nicolas Winding Refn’s utterly compelling Bronson, one which runs almost counter-intuitive to the narrative’s freewheeling nihilistic bent. This story of Britain’s most infamous prisoner, played with ridiculously brutish theatricality in a masterful performance by Tom Hardy, doesn’t really tell us a thing about Charlie Bronson (born Michael Peterson). We start and finish with the same violent sociopath as Refn takes us through Bronson’s life story, a journey without any deeply insightful breakthroughs, or even anything that might add meaning or context to the protagonist’s mindset or motivations.
What Refn has done, and what makes the film work as well as it does (other than Hardy’s transformation into the title character, a performance that echoes Deniro’s Travis Bickle and Day-Lewis’s Bill Cutting), is present a distillation of Twain’s classic introduction to Huckleberry Finn — “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” — demonstrating the futility in finding deeper resonance of subject matter where nothing but surface level reflections remain. There is a metatextual relationship between the film’s doctors, police, teachers, and artists trying to understand Bronson, the character, as there is between audience and the Bronson, the film. Attempting to find complex understanding in Bronson is as futile as trying to reason with an avalanche, but yet remains as electrifyingly entertaining as watching one.
It’s arduous enough not drawing comparisons with Kubrick’s classic take on A Clockwork Orange. Hardy’s Bronson and McDowell’s Alex are both drawn from similar molds, brutally violent sociopaths brought up in entirely too permissive households. Refn’s cinematography, utilization of iconic classical music, and reliance on slow dissolves evoke Kubrick often. But these are surface similarities; whereas Kubrick’s film relied on satire of a science-fiction bent to underlie the humanity of his universe, Refn takes a more naturalistic approach to reinforce the futility of such an endeavor in his world. Bronson’s theatrical inner monologues, presented by Hardy with superb vaudevillian flair, display Bronson’s spectrum of blunt, instinctive emotion — wrath, amusement, bewilderment, indifference –and serve to advance the storyline with remarkable visionary style, but it is presented entirely and purposefully as a circus act. Magnificent marvels to behold, but strictly a feast for the primal senses. We delight in the muscular horsepower of Bronson’s primitive persona, all sweat and sinew and sheer, blunt force. In the end, he is little more than a caged animal. Even his omnipresent handlebar mustache evokes the quintessential carnival barker.
Based on a true story, Bronson retells the history of a man who has spent the better part of his life in multiple prisons, mostly in solitary confinement. Imprisoned at a young age, the unrelentingly and unapologetically violent Michael Peterson finds the prison life suits him well, a breeding nest for his aggressive, antagonistic tendencies. Scoffing at parole, he becomes a notorious legend behind prison walls, constantly being transferred by authorities in order to “pass on” the problem to other wardens. Even a stint at a mental hospital under constant sedation does little to subdue his force of spirit. Even when he is eventually released, he can only find work as a bare-knuckle boxer (where he assumes the name ‘Charlie Bronson’), and that level of freedom fails to bring him even a modicum of comfort, especially someone so emphatically removed from society. The cage is his home, where he thrives.
Tom Hardy is utterly remarkable in the title role. Putting on over 40 pounds of muscle to look the physical part, he is entirely instinct, animalistic, simple and almost childlike, but never simple-minded. Bronson might look like a lunkhead who could tear own your spinal column, but he has a complete understanding who he is and, perhaps most tellingly, what he needs — an inevitable return to violence. His main love seems to be hostage-taking; not to terrorize the hostages themselves, but because the act will always assuredly result in him being rushed by a dozen guards armed with clubs and body armor. He relishes the prospect, stripping completely naked in drooling anticipation of the inevitable violent conflict.
Bronson doesn’t really say much, in the end. We don’t really find out how he became the way he is, or who he was before he acquiesced to violence as personal ideology, or even speculation as to who might have become under any other circumstances. The film feints with salvation through artistry before pulling the rug from under us, plunging us back into a darkened cage with Charlie Bronson circling us, naked as a jaybird, greased head to toe in body paint, fists clenched, eyes glazed over and looking through us like we’re barely there. There’s about as much to know about Bronson as there is about a caged, scowling feral animal. The film, much like the title character, exists for its own sake without feeling the need to expound upon itself, save for the grand spectacle of experiencing such a fruitless endeavor.