Imprisoned in 1974 for petty theft, Michael Gordon Peterson proceeded to make a name for himself within in a way that he never could without. Aside from a brief parole in 1982, during which he had a stint as a bare-knuckle fighter and took the better-fitting moniker ‘Charles Bronson’, he has been locked-up every day of his life to the present. Primarily known to the British public as a taker of hostages and “Britain’s Most Expensive/Violent Prisoner”, Bronson is both a subject of fascination and target of derision. Ostensibly directing a biopic, Nicolas Winding Refn has taken far more liberties with the man’s story than is ordinarily acceptable given that kind of genre limitation.
From the get-go, Refn challenges audience expectations. The opening sequence is genius, and perhaps the kind of amalgam of image and sound that couldn’t be more perfect for rendering the ugly, caged intensity of the male id. We know just how brutal a man like Bronson can be from the moment we see him performing his floor exercises—naked except for the grease or excrement that covers his muscled body and the intense red light that bathes every millimeter of the frame—later to be rudely interrupted by baton-wielding guards; over this balletic chaos Scott Walker’s appropriately forlorn composition “The Electrician” plays right up until the film’s title appears under a now fully-clothed Bronson staring evilly at the camera.
Addressing the camera Bronson tells us of his childhood and history to the present, but against expectations it is a very normal one (not too normal, he tells us; he experiences his fair share of violence and victimization). One can’t help but think at this point, “are they really going to attempt such an easy explanation of Bronson’s state of mind?,” but Refn does no such thing. When Bronson is finally locked up for the first time, he pretends to sob away from the camera before emerging with a terrible laugh, suddenly transported fully-costumed to a vaudeville stage in front of a fully aroused audience.
Refn makes some clever meta-reference to the first ten minutes of exposition when Bronson tells his theatre audience that he doesn’t think of prison as “not bad”, as “that would be misrepresenting myself, and I think enough of that has been done already, don’t you?” Bronson goes on to tell us about the guards he’s grappled, the various conditions in the lock-up, amusingly describes the accommodations in all the prisons he’s been passed around to as if they’re hotels, and goes on to clarify his position:
“Don’t get me wrong. For most people prison is tough, a monotonous nightmare; twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year of pure, unadulterated, living, breathing hell. But for me, prison was finally a place where I could sharpen my tools, hone my skills. It’s like a battleground, isn’t it? It was an opportunity. And a place where, soon, every native was going to know my name.”
At this point it is made clear that what we are dealing with in this man is not a criminal, he only stole after all a few pounds, but a man who desperately wants to be in prison, and famous. He certainly commits a criminal act, but it isn’t clear if he even had live rounds in his gun—a shotgun we see him saw down to the length of a man’s forearm and then play with like a steel penis—and he only takes enough to justify wielding the weapon in the first place, perhaps assuming that armed robbery is a better charge than brandishing a weapon for no good reason for which he might just get a slap on the wrist, or be sent to the looney bin.
Bronson’s obvious machismo combined with the gunplay implies a latent sexuality, but Refn spends the remainder of the film sculpting a character who couldn’t be more asexual, at times resembling an impotent steroid abuser or a listless and impotent heroin fiend. It’s simply the first of many red herrings in a film that many will observe resembles Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange a little more than superficially. It’s true we see Bronson engage in a few sexual liaisons and he even attempts a marriage proposal, but as the character repeatedly reminds everyone around him, he doesn’t know what it is that he wants. He certainly doesn’t have any ordinary notions of freedom. The loose redhead he wants to marry tells him he has no ambition, and to prove her wrong he steals an engagement ring.
The film suffers greatly on repeat viewings from a confusion of both tense and perspective. In attempting to defy expectations and comfortable behavioral explanations, Refn constantly changes pace; there is no dramatic denouement and Bronson’s confessional narration that dominates the first half of the film is abandoned or forgotten about for much of the rest. What’s left is a series of sometimes brilliant and occasionally surreal setpieces that raise more questions about the screenplay than they do the characters. Refn and his screenwriter clearly have some ideological notions in mind, but they are left underdeveloped and totally waylaid by Tom Hardy’s intense performance.
If I tried I couldn’t laud Tom Hardy enough, truly one of the most astonishing menaces to ever grace the screen; his entire body owns this character, even as we see Hardy at different stages of his actual training regimen due to a non-chronological shooting schedule. And when the script relegates his body to stasis, Hardy uses his eyes and his mouth to insinuate vast reservoirs of angst underneath. He has a way of breathing only through his nose—the sound of it is miked very clearly—which gives a sense of an ego that can’t be contained even by the limits of Bronson’s musculature, and ready to burst. Just incredible. And to the surprise of many Hardy’s is also a remarkably absurd and funny performance, making the character all the more enigmatic.
In the end Bronson basically becomes, in the words of the effeminate convict who takes him under his artistic wing, a “budding Magritte”. Refn wants us to believe some kind of transformation has taken place, but when and where I couldn’t reckon; the very mustache on Bronson’s face is the work of an aesthete, not to mention his physique. Nonetheless, the weird marriage of multimedia art and physical violence that takes place during the film’s climax is intriguing and prefaced by Bronson’s demand, the only time we witness him make one, for music.