Saturday, March 20, 2010


Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring Tom Hardy, Matt King, Kelly Adams

We all have something we're good at. Go ahead, think about it. Think about what you're good at. Even if you don't know it, right now someone is talking about you and what you do best. It may not even be something you want to be known for. It could be someone is saying right now "(your name) is a real good complainer. If there was a World Series of complaining, (your name) would win four straight games in a row." Michael Peterson, as the way the film Bronson presents him, isn't good at anything - except for fighting. It's tough to be noticed and make a name for yourself when your talent is throwing fists at the faces and bodies of people who haven't done anything to provoke you. That is unless you're behind the cold concrete walls of a prison. In regular life people tend to look down on juiced up meat-heads always looking to exert their alpha male status. In prison, though, flexing your muscles right before a melee with six or seven prison guards - well, that's a path to celebrity.

Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn (the man behind the epic Pusher trilogy and one of the most exciting directors working in the medium today) sets his lens on Peterson who, after a discussion with his underground boxing promoter Paul (Matt King), changes his name to Charles Bronson, a move to attach an already established tough guy persona to himself. Bronson becomes Peterson's alter-ego, and with this alter-ego he starts fights, stages hostage situations, and becomes Britain's most notorious prisoner, spending most his decades behind bars in solitary confinement.

Bronson is based on a true story. There is a man currently still locked away in a prison somewhere in England who changed his name from Michael Peterson to Charles Bronson and is currently still the country's most well-known jailbird. The film glosses over Bronson's life before bars (the girl he meets and marries (Kelly Adams) and the child he has with her disappear after the first fifteen minutes of the movie) and instead focuses on the 30 or so years behind them.

Changing to a more stylized form of direction from the gritty documentary feel of Pusher and its sequels, Refn shoots his film as a hyper, Oliver Stone-esque comedy. Bronson narrates the movie from a stage in front of an audience. Painting a variety of masks over his face, it becomes apparent that Refn sees Bronson as a performer, only instead of expressing himself through a readily accepted artistic measure, such as acting or singing, he uses his fist as a paintbrush; the faces he brutalizes are the canvas; and the cuts, bruises, and scars he leaves behind are his works of art.

One cannot mention this film and not talk about the performance of Tom Hardy as Bronson. Transforming himself from this to this, Hardy amazes as the charismatic, dangerous, yet jovial lead character. Bronson spends most of the film chest thumping and grandstanding, but in the more subdued moments of the film, where we get to see Michael Peterson and not Charles Bronson, Hardy endows the man with more layers than just a brawler with intentions of celebrity. It's truly iconic work, and perhaps the film's greatest achievement.

It's unfortunate, then, that the film itself doesn't quite reach the heights of its lead performer. We never get to really know Michael Peterson's life before he became Bronson. His life outside prison is quickly addressed and then forgotten about. There is a small chunk of the movie which casually addresses the 69 days Bronson spent on parole after his first stint in the slammer (a time in which he was so used to having prison doors open and closed for him that he has trouble opening and closing them himself on the outside), but it feels as if Refn only wants to get us to the next brawl. Not that the excessive scenes of fisticuffs don't work (after all, the man's life was filled with brutality so it's only fitting that the film is as well), but without Hardy's performance I believe the film would have felt thin and light, which is surprising after the rich characterizations Refn strove to achieve in the three Pusher films. There's also never a real sense of the passage of time. Without the narration and title cards indicating 34 years have spanned the film feels like it could have taken place over a few months.

That being said, the film is both darkly hilarious and beautifully violent (and it ends with one of the most horrific and perhaps, ironically, anti-violence images I've ever seen). Where Refn as fallen short in giving us a complete story of a man's life he has succeeded in capturing the essence of the man. As a biopic it doesn't wholly succeed, but as an exaggerated portrait of a man who finds artistic expression through violence it flourishes.


1 comment:

  1. Good review, looks like an intersting flick.