(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: In 1974, a misguided 19-year-old named Michael Peterson decided he wanted to make a name for himself, and so with a homemade sawn-off shotgun and a head full of dreams, he attempted to rob a post office. Swiftly apprehended and originally sentenced to seven years in jail, Peterson has subsequently been behind bars for 34 years, 30 of which have been spent in solitary confinement. Provocative and stylized, Bronson follows the metamorphosis of Mickey Peterson, who gave himself the nickname Charles Bronson, from a petty thief into Britain’s most dangerous prisoner.
– From DVD Production Notes
(Mild Spoilers Ahead)
Holy shit is Bronson an adrenaline rush. I remember the first time I saw the trailer, which was a horn blast of unadulterated bravado, violence and “what the hell did I just see”-ness. In short: my kind of movie. I was committed to seeing it although I had no idea who Charles Bronson was, what the director had done or whether it had any chance of living up to the craziness I had seen play out in 2 minutes and 11 seconds. That’s not bad considering the poster looks like it’s for a run-of-the-mill boxing movie.
After my first viewing one of the things that stuck with me was the film’s silences, which I would come to understand are a staple of Nicolas Winding Refn’s style. To get it out of the way, I’ll immediately address the eight years that have passed since then, in which the already-established Refn has become an arthouse enfant terrible and a fixture at Cannes. He has released several films during that time: Valhalla Rising (2009), Drive (2011), Only God Forgives (2013) and The Neon Demon (2016), all of which have expanded on that style and beyond.
I remembered Bronson as being stylized, but in comparison to its successors it seems raw and unvarnished, a heightened theater piece anchored by a performance that would have captivated anyone anywhere, no matter what medium or how and when it would have been expressed. I’m not kidding. Tom Hardy could have gone door to door performing as his character and it would have been captivating. Everything about him is theatrical and painfully focused, and this is what makes Bronson unforgettable.
The other compelling piece of the puzzle is how it centers on a man seeking his place as an artist, ultimately finding his calling through notoriety and violence. In spite of its brawling Refn maintains that Bronson is a “feminine” film, an exploration of how someone discovers the medium and the tools he needs to fully express himself. He isn’t just “acting out.” He isn’t insane (in fact, he is certified sane halfway through the film). He knows what he’s doing. He’s a showman, which is Hardy portrays to brilliant effect.
If you don’t believe me, keep in mind that this is a man who perpetrated situations that are stranger than fiction:
- He escaped onto the roof of Broadmoor three times, tearing off the roof tiles and causing £250,000 in damages. Three years later he did the same at Walton, causing another £100,000 worth of damages.
- He attacked fellow inmates with imaginative weapons made out of sauce bottles and jam jars.
- While at Long Lartin he escaped his cell and ran around naked with a spear he had fashioned out of a broom handle and a broken bottle.
- During a stay at Woodhill he took a librarian hostage and demanded a helicopter, an inflatable doll and a cup of tea as ransom. He let the hostage go when he farted in front of him, most likely out of fear.
- Three years later he took two Iraqi hijackers and a fellow inmate hostage at Belmarsh, forcing them to tickle his feet, call him “General” and bash metal lunch trays against his head. He demanded various weapons and a plane to Libya, and after he released one of the hostages he began singing “I WANT ICE CREAM” repeatedly.
- When a teacher criticized one of his drawings he tore up a prison during a 44-hour siege in which he destroyed furniture and tore appliances from the walls. At one point he knocked himself out trying to wrangle a washing machine, because why not?
Only some of these incidents are depicted in the film, but all of them could be considered some sort of bizarre prison performance art, and that is what Bronson gives us. The titular character is the ringleader of his own circus/one man show, telling us the story of how he earned the title of “Britain’s Most Violent Prisoner.” He can add artistic flourishes wherever he finds it appropriate, but probably doesn’t need to. The truth is enough.
There is also no explanation for his behavior, and as he says himself, “There was nothing wonky about my upbringing.” It’s a miracle that the film succeeds at all, since Hardy is playing a character that is incredibly opaque yet still likable and ineffably human at his best. It may also be the funniest character has played and Refn has directed, since his outbursts are as threatening as they are cartoonish.
However, if you’re thinking that Bronson is a comedy or that its central character is the butt of the joke, think again. Like many of the films in Z To A, this isn’t a straightforward story as much as it is a plunge into someone’s inner reality. Refn described the process as exploring layers: not only how Bronson sees himself, but how he sees the world and what he’s trying to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the outside world, within the confines of prison, drawn on a piece of paper or happening within his own mind.
With all human beings there is a disparity between these perceptions, and in films there is often some other character to call them into question or an event that changes them forever. That isn’t what Bronson is about. It’s about finding your identity and fighting for it, even if it comes at an incredible cost. From an objective point of view it’s impossible to say that the real Charles Bronson (now known as Charles Salvador) has had an easy life, but he decided who he was going to be, and from that moment he decided he was committed.
Earlier on I mentioned the films Refn released after Bronson. Although I dearly love this one I haven’t liked any of the others. I particularly had issues with Drive, which in spite of its success I find to be a toxic male fantasy rivaling the toxic female fantasy in the Twilight movies. This continued while watching Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives. I struggled with what they’re trying to depict or communicate, as well as how Refn insisted on eliciting non-performances out of his leads.
So why is Bronson different? I noticed in his interviews that Refn said, “Tom was very easy to work with. He did what I told him to do.” However, in the same breath he said that Hardy challenged him when it came to playing the part correctly. When Hardy was interviewed he spoke of his relationship with the real Bronson and interacting with his family and friends to make sure his portrayal was as accurate as possible. He also became involved enough that he was helping rewrite scenes during the shoot.
Afterwards he recalled, “[Refn and I] just didn’t see eye to eye as human beings. We just rubbed each other the wrong way and continued to rub each other the wrong way.” Despite this he said he wouldn’t mind working with him again. Refn also remembers Hardy fondly but admitted that he often went out of his way to antagonize the actor as much as possible. I can’t help but wonder if it was because Refn had an entirely different idea of how Bronson was supposed to behave, but sadly Tom Hardy is no Ryan Gosling. Even when he’s doing nothing he’s doing something. Stillness and a blank stare just aren’t his thing. It isn’t the real Bronson’s either, whether he’s cooped up or not.
After seeing Bronson again I have to say that the bulk of its brilliance is due to Hardy, and not because I’m biased, but because the performance prevailed. And not only that, it’s a performance that sets itself apart from the rest of Refn’s work, which has become less about character and performance and more about visuals and style. At the end of the day Refn is a straight up filmmaker while Hardy is a theater-trained actor. That isn’t necessarily a match made in heaven, but this time it really, really worked.
It also goes without saying that the Tom Hardy you see in this film is not how he appears in real life. He completely changed his look, mannerisms, voice, the way he walked and played someone much older than him (he was thirty when he took on the role). Also, the real Bronson loved him so much he shaved his own mustache off so Hardy could glue it to his face.