“Runnin’ out of choices, really.”
19-year-old Michael Peterson attempted to make a name for himself by committing the 1974 robbery of a local post office, and for the little more than fifty pounds he netted, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Of the total 34 years he served by the time Nicolas Winding Refn’s film was made, 30 were spent in solitary confinement due to Peterson’s reputation as “the most violent prisoner in Britain”.
Bronson is the artfully shot, brutal and surprisingly funny portrayal of Peterson, who later took the name of American actor Charles Bronson when he started fighting in underground, bare-knuckle matches. Like Tilda Swinton in Julia, Tom Hardy gives a tour de force performance in Bronson, and was similarly overlooked at the end of last year.
After his initial imprisonment, Bronson is sent to an asylum where, forcefully sedated, he finds the only way back to his beloved prison cell is to attempt to kill another inmate. When this plan fails, he is moved to yet another facility where he starts a riot that costs the government millions in damages. In return, they declare him sane and release him into his parents’ custody. For a mere 69 days, Bronson settles in uncomfortably with his parents and later, his uncle, but soon finds himself back where he seems infinitely more at home.
Bronson is depicted as a violent, unpredictable fellow, and Hardy roars through the film, making even the simplest of postures seem confrontational. At times he reacts only with facial and body movements that bring to mind Chaplin or Keaton. He responds to his prison sentences like a man who’s missed a bus he didn’t really need to catch. Telling his own story of incarceration and near-madness, Bronson speaks directly to the camera in prison blues, and also to a theatrical audience dressed in a suit with alternating face paint. His gestures are frequently exaggerated, his face flashes from giddy grin to threatening stare, and his voice shifts from a corrosive bass to a whispery tenor. Bronson seems in a perpetual state of flex, his muscle-bound body, bald pate and vaudevillian moustache a jarring combination; he looks like one of those stereotypical old-world weightlifters who would be shown riding a penny-farthing.
Bronson has no message other than: some men simply are not meant for institutional punishment, and efforts to make them conform to it end up costly exercises in futility. Like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, a stylistic and thematic cousin, Bronson is orchestral in tone and shocking in its unwound, outlandish violence. The two films also share a masterful use of music to accentuate action and dramatic tableaus.
While set designs vary from effectively ugly and claustrophobic to brightly colored and almost campy in their era-specific styles, it’s Refn’s exquisite direction and use of colors and textures that best reinforce what Hardy achieves on screen. Bronson is a brilliant portrayal of a frightening individual; a cruel comedy of celebrity culture and an urgent prison drama wrapped in the cellophane of self-reverence.
(Bronson is currently available on DVD and Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” service, which can be viewed via an XBOX 360.)