Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s With Blood On His Hands – The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn which runs from October 24th to November 5th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 film Bronson, about the man notoriously known as “Brittan’s Most Violent Inmate”, is fun because you get to see where some of Refn’s ideas for Drive (2011) came from and some of what informed lead actor Tom Hardy’s interpretation of Bane for The Dark Knight Rises (2012). That’s kind of where the fun ends, though.
Bronson is gritty and violent and follows a man who is genuinely distasteful and impossible to sympathize with. That character is Michael Peterson (who later renames himself after actor Charles Bronson), who is incarcerated in 1974 and sentenced to 7 years in prison for robbing a post office, however due to his incredibly violent nature he ends up doing 34 years with 30 being in solitary confinement (up to 2008 when the film was released. He is still alive and still serving out a life sentence). Bronson wants to be famous, make a name for himself. He knows of his title of the most violent inmate in Brittan, and though it’s not exactly what he set out for, he has made a name for himself.
It’s tough to say that there is a story to Bronson, it’s more of glimpses into the man’s life and how he moved through life. Refn’s style is fragmented and explicit, never confusing.
It’s tough to say that there is a story to Bronson, it’s more of glimpses into the man’s life and how he moved through life. Refn’s style is fragmented and explicit, never confusing. At the same time, he intercuts scenes of Bronson on stage (presumably in a fantasy sequence, wherein he explains his life and circumstances to a packed house who laughs at his jokes and applauds him exuberantly). It is in these sequences that we get the biggest insight into Bronson’s mind and the motivation behind his actions.
It’s interesting that in these sequences, where he is able to speak his mind, he never tries to play the victim of circumstance. He owns what he’s done and in most instances, he’s proud of it. He’s never known much more than fighting people, so that’s what he does for his whole life. Even when he gets out of prison (for a scant 69 days) he starts bare-knuckle boxing to make some money and earn his name. He is, of course, good at this but a jewelry store robbery lands him back in jail where he remains to this day.
Refn directs the film with flair and style to spare and that suits this film because it is mostly a series of vignettes strung together by Bronson’s fantasy onstage narration. He utilizes his sets and actors in a spare way, so he can have open spaces inside a mental institution (an incredibly restrictive area). In many ways, he adheres to his fellow countryman Lars Von Trier’s Dogma 95 rules of filmmaking, which was a contemporary update on Italian Neorealism that sets up rules of ‘pure’ filmmaking and bars prefabricated sets and unnatural situations (taken to the extreme in Von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville). Everything feels natural, unforced and decidedly unglamorized.
The main attraction of the film, though, is Tom Hardy. His performance is one so brave and so emotionally (and at several points physically) bare that he steals the show. He expertly portrays a man who is so emotionally stunted that the only way he knows how to express himself is through violence.
The main attraction of the film, though, is Tom Hardy. His performance is one so brave and so emotionally (and at several points physically) bare that he steals the show. He expertly portrays a man who is so emotionally stunted that the only way he knows how to express himself is through violence. He is short on words in his real life and long on them in his fantasy stage show. Hardy manages to craft a man that is infinitely charming and charismatic in his head and repugnant in his real life. His performance can be likened to that of Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull (1980), where DeNiro plays an unredeemable Jake La Motta so well that you feel sorry for him at the end. Now, we don’t feel bad for Bronson at the end, but we do feel that he’s grown to understand that what he’s done his whole life is wrong, but despite knowing that he isn’t sorry for any of it. Hardy is utterly compelling from his first words to his last and perhaps we don’t pity him because he does not pity himself. He’s proud of his notorious accomplishments and you get the impression that even though he acknowledges he did wrong, he would do it all over again if given the chance. Hardy’s violent vulnerability in the real sections and show-stopping charisma in the fantasy sequences draws us into a film that if it were in less capable hands would be as repellant as the subject.
Together, Refn and Hardy have pulled off a rare feat: to create a compelling film about a subject you can’t rally behind. Only Scorsese and DeNiro have done this previously with the afore mentioned Raging Bull. Bronson isn’t as good as Raging Bull, but few things are. It is, however, an intimate look at a man who is known only for seemingly inexplicable violence toward others. It does not attempt to place blame on anyone for making him this way, it simply attempts to show a man who really doesn’t know how to communicate and takes his frustrations out on others with his fists. Bronson is startling, vivid and brave for not shying away from the brutality Bronson inflicted on others and therefore the brutality inflicted upon him. It doesn’t ask us to condone his actions or like him or even sympathize with him, just to try for a moment to see who he is and hear his story.
[notification type=”star”]85/100 ~ GREAT. Bronson is startling, vivid and brave for not shying away from the brutality Bronson inflicted on others and therefore the brutality inflicted upon him. It doesn’t ask us to condone his actions or like him or even sympathize with him, just to try for a moment to see who he is and hear his story.[/notification]