You’ve probably never heard of Charles Bronson– not the real Charles Bronson, but rather Michael Peterson, who adopted the name of the famous action icon on the advice of his fighting promoter as a way of inflating his own icon and bolstering his status as a man not to be trifled with. His story is a bizarrely compelling one as told by Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn, up-and-coming auteur and recently fascinated by solitary men intent on shedding the truth of themselves in favor of something else. In the case of Bronson, that something else is something mythical; Peterson/Bronson, we learn early in the film, wants to be famous, and so– bereft of the gift of theatrical or musical talent– decides that the means to this end lies in pugilism.
Of course, what I haven’t mentioned just yet is that Peterson’s true claim to fame lies in his infamy as Britain’s most violent criminal offender. Which, as you may imagine, changes the tone of the movie somewhat.
Bronson‘s story is one that inherently denies its audiences closure. Refn treats us to a brief glimpse at Peterson’s early life, which involved fights with students, with teachers, and eventually with the police; in between various brawls we’re told by Bronson (Tom Hardy), who narrates much of the film against a black-lit backdrop, that he came from a good family and that his parents were decent people. Clearly upbringing isn’t responsible for inflicting Bronson upon the British prison system, so the question remains throughout the film– where exactly did this man come from? He’s a real-world second cousin to slasher icon Michael Myers, a force of destruction without any traceable point of origination. That lack of reason, of explanation, serves to make Peterson larger than life just as much as his exploits (both in and out of jail).
It’s the central performance of Hardy, though, that translates the proportions of Bronson’s personality and character to a viewing audience. Prior to Bronson, Hardy was something of an unknown quantity; for most, he was best known for earning the privilege of acting like Patrick Stewart for the entirety of Stark Trek: Nemesis (though he certainly made spot appearances here and there in films like Layer Cake and Marie Antoinette). While he was something of an anomaly in those pictures, he’s nothing short of a revelation in Bronson, making Peterson into a knowable human being while maintaining the fine balance required to both assert his humanity and allow him to be explosively angry and unquestionably dangerous. Even in Bronson‘s most gonzo moments Hardy makes us understand Peterson as a man, at least enough to bestow a semblance of logic and sanity to his aggressive, violent, and often inexplicable behavior. Simultaneously we “get” Peterson, and yet we don’t. It’s a masterful performance that absolutely must be seen.
Hardy’s not only improved his acting chops here, though– he’s also bulked up, rather impressively, into a mountain of muscle. Anything else would of course be inexcusable, as the man responsible for portraying Bronson inevitably faces down numerous opponents over the course of the film. Bronson’s a scrapper, a brawler, a real roughneck; he mixes it up with convicts whilst he’s behind bars, and also proves to be more than a match for the guards at the various institutions which play host to him over the course of his stints in the clink. Bronson is no Valhalla Rising or Drive, mind, so we’re not talking about crushed heads or decapitations or anything of the sort. In fact he never takes a single life in the entire film– though he certainly threatens to.
Structurally, Bronson leaps through Peterson’s life, largely spent behind bars; frequently it flits back and forth between action and drama to scenes of Hardy narrating, either set as talking head segments against black-lit backgrounds or as performance art done before an audience, in which Bronson paints his face and regales the crowd with details of his life and misdeeds. As a character study, the framework of Bronson works well; the film itself is rather low-plot, with no specific recurring conflict carrying on throughout the picture. Biopics don’t tend to follow typical storytelling conventions as a rule, of course, and Bronson isn’t much different in this sense– though it’s certainly odd in its own way. Most biopics, after all, don’t feature bulky men stripping down to the buff and greasing their bodies all over before scuffling with prisoners and guards alike.
Refn’s DNA clearly shows in Bronson from frame one to the film final, unnerving shot. There’s a haunting quality to this tale of unexplainable self-destruction and wanton fury apparent in the rest of the Danish director’s oeuvre, as well as his stylistic touches– which vary greatly from his other films. In point of fact, Refn’s direction lends a somewhat avant-garde aspect to Bronson. Lingering shots on Hardy in naught but his birthday suit, pacing around a cell that’s more like a dog cage or standing stock-still while painted black from head to toe, coalesce into living paintings and sculptures. It’s a feat in itself that Refn finds a way to make Bronson himself palatable as a man and as a character, but that he also finds a weird kind of beauty in Bronson’s circumstances, his derangement, and his actions.
Most of all, though, Refn has mined a modern tale of the price of fame from the story of Michael Peterson and his bid to attain visibility in the public’s eye. If Bronson is to be believed, everything that the infamous criminal has done in his career as a fighter and inmate and Her Majesty’s most expensive prisoner he did for notoriety. When we live in an age of Jersey Shore and Real Housewives, champions of “reality” television’s reign, Peterson barely seems unreasonable by comparison.