“I always wanted to make a Kenneth Anger movie, and I wanted to combine great theatrical tradition and British pop cinema of the 60s, which was very psychedelic, and at the same time, to make a movie about a man who creates his own mythology. It had to be surreal in order to pay off.”–Director Refn on Bronson
PLOT: Narrated from a theater inside his own mind by Michael Peterson (later to rechristen himself Charles Bronson, his “fighting name” ), the movie is an aggressively stylized account of the true story of Britain’s most notorious prisoner, who spent 30 years of his 34 year sentence in solitary confinement for his violent behavior. Peterson knocks over a post office with a sawed-off shotgun and receives a seven year penitentiary sentence; inside, he finds he has a natural affinity for institutional life as he nurtures a burgeoning passion for taking hostages and picking fights with prison guards. Shuffled from prison to prison, and serving a brief stint in a hospital for the criminally insane, Peterson is furloughed, becomes a bare-knuckle boxer and adopts the name Bronson, and lasts a few months in the outside world before finding himself reincarcerated, at home once more.
- The movie stays true to the spirit of the real life Michael Peterson/Charlie Bronson, while omitting many facts and inventing others. The real Charlie Bronson has won several awards in prison-sponsored contests for his artwork and poetry and has published several books, including a fitness guide and an autobiography titled “Loonyology.” In one of his hostage-taking escapades, he demanded an inflatable doll, a helicopter and a cup of tea as ransom.
- Before incarceration Michael Peterson actually worked as a circus strongman, which may be where he developed his distinctive trademark handlebar mustache and shaved pate.
- Danish director Refn was previously best known for the gritty, documentary style Pusher trilogy, a look at the criminal drug dealing subculture in Copenhagen.
- Some of the paintings appearing in the film and in the animated sequences are actual drawings by the real life Bronson. Examples of Bronson’s artwork can be found here.
- Actor Tom Hardy put on about 40 pounds of muscle for the role. Previously best known as “Handsome Bob” in Guy Ricthie’s RocknRolla, Hardy is poised to become a breakout star, slated to replace Mel Gibson in the new “Mad Max” series.
- Cinematographer Larry Smith began his career with Stanley Kubrick, working as an electrician on Barry Lyndon and a gaffer on The Shining before graduating to assistant cameraman for Eyes Wide Shut.
- At the film’s London premiere, a tape recording of Bronson’s voice was played, stating, “I’m proud of this film, because if I drop dead tonight, then I live on. As long as my mother enjoys the film, I’m happy… I make no bones about it, I really was… a horrible, violent, nasty man. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either, because every punch I’ve ever flung in my life I’ve taken 21 back.” This incident caused the Prison Officers’ Association to complain, because it is illegal to record a prisoner in a British prison without authorization. The Association also accused the film of “glorifying violence.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bronson turning himself and his art teacher into living paintings in the very strange finale.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hyperstylized to the point of surreality, Bronson is biopic as mythology, an appropriate tack when dealing with a self-deluded, self-promoting subject. The portrait that emerges is not so much of a fascinating but essentially unknowable real-life sociopath as it is a portrait of Bronson’s pseudo-artistic attempt to create a public image as an antihero, with notes of humanizing sympathy but also with plenty of knowing irony added to deglamorize its subject.
Original trailer for Bronson
COMMENTS: Tom Hardy’s performance in Bronson undercuts my theory of acting. I believe actors are mere interpreters; their job is not to muck up the words of the writer or wreck the intent of the director. Bad acting can ruin a promising movie, but the best acting in the world can’t save a dull script. Acting should be competent and transparent, so as to invisibly channel the real creative forces; actors should be pleasant to look at, and not draw attention to themselves. Workmanlike acting is usually just as good as excellent acting; if acting is really good, we should forget we’re watching an actor. There are only a very few performances that break this general rule, where the actor actually adds something to the story that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Hardy delivers one of those rare achievements here.
He’s onscreen for nearly the entire running length of the film, in a story that provides no opportunity character development: Charlie Bronson is incapable of, or uninterested in, learning any lesson. He ends the movie with exactly the same deluded mindset as he begins it. His motivations are incomprehensible to normal people. He is willing to wait years for the perfect opportunity to ambush his guards, knowing that he will only be able to throw a half a dozen punches before he’s swarmed, beaten, and thrown into solitary confinement for months. The script asks Hardy to somehow make this inscrutable character believable while raving like a madman, performing broad vaudeville, delivering long monologues, and engaging in a few quiet moments of real pathos. Hardy is up to this impossible task, and makes Bronson, a bizarre character with one foot in a harsh prison drama and another in an otherwordly theater of his imagination, utterly real.
Bulking up with forty pounds of muscle so he could convincingly portray a (frequently nude) bare-knuckle boxer who dresses like a circus strongman was the least of Hardy’s achievements. The actor adds a number of eccentric mannerisms that make Bronson come alive. He invents a small vocabulary of grunts and grumblings that emerge from deep in Bronson’s throat; Bronson may be a man of few words, but he’s got an expansive sub-vocal language with which he expresses everything from sexual embarrassment to seething resentment. Note the awkward way Hardy swings his arms as Bronson stiffly strides down a city street, as if years of push-ups in solitary confinement have thrown off his balance and made him forget how to walk like a normal person out for a stroll. The detail highlights the fact that Bronson can’t fit in to normal society; even his simplest movements are over-masculine, outsized for civilized life. Watch his expressions as he interacts with “normal” people at an (admittedly rather unusual) cocktail party, or as he’s being seduced by a beautiful woman sitting on his lap in her panties. His expressions and movements are theatrical, but not expected or appropriate to the situation. He smiles, frowns, purses his lips, juts his jaw, and answers questions with grunts, his responses seemingly random, not in harmony with the words addressed to him. He doesn’t seem ill at ease, exactly; rather, he seems to be responding to his own thoughts instead of to his companions. It’s never quite clear whether Bronson’s too stupid to carry on normal social intercourse, or whether he’s just supremely disinterested in any polite conversation that isn’t a prelude to a brawl. At any rate, out in the “real” world, he’s not at all the supremely confident performer who stands in front of a packed opera crowd house in mime makeup and roars out boasts to thunderous applause. Hardy’s Bronson only looks natural and comfortable when he’s in a rage, naked, greased up and throwing roundhouses.
Still, Hardy’s performance would mean nothing in a movie where Bronson didn’t get to do much except get pounded into submission with billy clubs. What makes Bronson hum is the fortunate marriage of an actor working at peak form and a director taking artistic gambles, and watching them all pay off. The story here is repetitive: Charlie Bronson hits society, society hits back harder, Bronson takes his punishment and bides his time until he can repeat the cycle. To keep things interesting, Refn alternates his approach to telling the tale, working his way through various fractured realities. Besides the expected and gritty prison drama scenes, we get Bronson performing his one man show for an imaginary audience, with several changes of makeup. We’re treated to violent slideshows, and scenes that incorporate documentary footage of the real Bronson while Hardy postures theatrically in front of the projector. We view tableaux mixing filmed footage with animated versions of the real Bronson’s own surreal prison sketches. And we see many scenes that represent real incidents, but are told with incredible abstraction, as when the burly prisoner politely serves tea to a guard and an effeminate inmate, taking a macho pugilistic pose while the fop admires his physique with his prissy pinky sticking out from his teacup. The uniformed cop stands stiffly and silently in the background like a guard at Buckingham Palace.
The most effective scenes have that mildly surreal, low-key Lynchian feel to them. When Bronson (then still Peterson) is briefly furloughed, we find he doesn’t fit into the outside world anymore. There is a constant tense feeling of social unease, coming from two directions: we always suspect Bronson could explode into brutality at any moment, but we also feel that at any moment he might be publicly humiliated. There is a scene where he stumbles into a cocktail party at a brothel. He calmly sips on a drink with a paper umbrella in it while surrounded by harlots, transvestites and their gay pimp, all eyes focused on the Hercules in their midst. The situation is bizarre, but it’s played straight so that the weirdness of it washes over you quietly. More of the same subdued oddness ensues in his brief sojourn in society. Refn takes care to always pose Bronson next to effete and overly civilized men, to exaggerate his raging masculinity and make him seem out of place. But we are also aware that this tale is being told to us by Bronson, as unreliable a narrator as there ever was, and we suspect that the non-fighting male supporting characters may all come off as girly men simply because we are perceiving events through Bronson’s eyes.
When discussing the director’s achievements in Bronson, I have to point out that his use of music is superlative throughout. Many of the key fight scenes are choreographed to bombastic pieces by Verdi or Wagner. Throughout the film, even the shortest snippets of classical or techno-dance music perfectly accent the scenes they accompany. Two brilliant musical sequences stand out in particular. The first is an absurdist dance party where lunatics flail about spastically under bad mood lighting to the strains of the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin,” as a chemically lobotomized Bronson tries to stumble away from the action. It’s like a nightmare version of the worst middle school dance you ever had the misfortune of attending. The second notable scene is the climax, where Delibes ethereal “Flower Duet” provides an ironic and chilling commentary on Charlie’s final work of “art.”
Putting the content of Bronson (which you may or may not connect with) aside, this is a perfect film. Taking it apart scene by scene and considering each in isolation, there is not one frame, not one artistic gambit, that I would quibble with or change. It’s perfect in it’s small details, and really the only objection that can be raised against it is that it elevates style over substance. But who cares, when the style is this exhilarating? Bronson is a rare, almost miraculous case of everything coming together perfectly, of a director and an actor simultaneously clicking on all cylinders.
The movie could be considered empty. It depicts Charles Bronson, or rather it depicts Charles Bronson’s depiction of himself, but it doesn’t explain him. In the UK, where Bronson is a real local celebrity, some critics and viewers have sought to find social relevance, whether positive or negative, in the movie. Some see it as apologizing for and even glorifying Bronson’s behavior. I’m not sure that many outsiders, including its Danish director, see the film that way. Surely there aren’t many teenagers who see the glamor in being walloped on by guards and thrown into the Hole. And, watching Hardy’s consistently stubborn and antisocial behavior throughout the film, his sadistic attacks on innocents as well as prison guards, you would be hard-pressed to find many people who would see the movie as a call to free an unjustly imprisoned man. Derek Malcolm of the London Evening Standard sees it as an indictment of the British prison system, but again, its hard to see non-Brits teasing that interpretation out of the film. It was surely an injustice to move Bronson to a psychiatric hospital and drug him up to the point where he could hardly gather the strength to strangle his fellow patients, but that injustice is, sadly, made understandable in the film. What else is there to do with a man whose only purpose in life is to beat on his neighbor, and who takes masochistic pride in the harshness of the punishment he receives? A prisoner like Bronson is an unsolvable dilemma. The British criminal justice system vainly tries to rehabilitate him, to channel his energy and creativity into drawing, but Bronson betrays them. Neither ruthless punishment or humane rehabilitation has any effect on him, and the movie has no suggestion how any society could treat someone like Bronson any differently.
“I always wanted to be famous,” Bronson muses in his opening lines. The final image shows Bronson standing in a cage too small to lie down in, bloodied and bruised, whimpering like a beaten animal. It’s a scene that would evoke great sympathy, if not for the irony that the entire film has proven that this is Bronson’s choice: this is what he sought out, this is his reward, the validation of his dream to become Britain’s most violent prisoner. Bronson doesn’t try to psychoanalyze its subject; it takes his words at face value. Charles Bronson, in the film’s view, is a brute fact. It doesn’t matter what we think of him—in his eyes, he remains our hero. He’s keeping a private score in which he earns points each time he lands, and absorbs, a punch. Even if he hadn’t spent 30 years in solitary confinement, he’d still be the world’s loneliest man.
Bronson is a strange story of a strange man, and it begs to be told in a strange way. It has been.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There’s no denying the film’s stylistic power: its stunning mix of surreal flashes, theatrical flourishes and impish camp. There’s just one thing missing from the Charles Bronson story: Charles Bronson… Refn refuses to address the Big Why: what has made this man the violent, masochistic creature he is?… That said, the performance of Tom Hardy… brings him to life in a weird, mythic way that has little to do with reality.”–Cosmo Landesman, The Sunday Times (London)
“Part literate black comedy, part surrealistic character study, part horror movie, ‘Bronson’ is a sophisticated confection, rich and dark, sprinkled with bitter little jokes.”–Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
OFFICIAL SITE: Bronson the Movie – Official Site – among the usual offerings such as cast and crew bios and the trailer, this site contains a streamable preview of the soundtrack
IMDB LINK: Bronson (2008)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Lionising of a Monster – starting from the premise that the movie portrays Bronson as a victim, Geoffrey Wansell of the Daily Mail calls the film “tawdry, exploitative and indefensible”
Tom Hardy lifts the lid on Bronson – ITN clip on the movie’s release with quotes from star Tom Hardy
Nicolas Winding Refn on ‘Bronson’ – brief interview with the director from BlackBook.com
Jailhouse flick: Charles Bronson makes biopic from solitary – Report from the Times of London on Bronson’s involvement in the movie
Free Charles Bronson – “fansite” for the real life Charles Bronson; naturally, they provided extensive coverage of the movie, posting numerous reviews and interviews
DVD INFO: The Magnolia Home Entertainment DVD (buy) features a “making of” documentary; “Tom Hardy: Building a Body,” a featurette on the fitness regimen the star used to bulk up for the film; trailers and TV spots; an audio commentary of director Refn being interviewed by film critic Alan Jones; and a 16 minute audio introduction from Bronson himself (presumably, the same audio recording that caused a controversy at the London premiere). The film is also available in Blu-ray (buy) with the same features.