Charles Bronson, born Michael Petersen, is a British artist and career criminal. His emulation of the legendary Hollywood hardass led to the name change — and has kept him behind bars for 35 years and counting (though he’s never been convicted of murder).
Tom Hardy is pure dynamite in the role, beefing up 35 pounds to play Britain’s most notorious prisoner. He has also become its most violent. With a shaved head and a comic-opera mustache, he likes to strip naked and grease himself before going into action. Hardy brings a raw physicality to the role, leaping naked about his cell, jumping from tables, hurtling himself into half a dozen guards, heedless of pain or harm. It must hurt him, because it makes us wince to watch.
The word is animalistic. Peterson tells us he was born into a normal middle-class family. He does not blame his childhood or anything else for the way he turned out, and neither does this film. As a kid in the ‘60s, Peterson enjoyed beating up fellow schoolmates for no good reason. As a married father, he decided to saw off a shotgun (with wife and baby in the other room) and rob a jewelry store — a heist that netted him little cash but seven years in prison.
He has now served 34 uninterrupted years behind bars, with 30 of them in solitary confinement. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn pushes hard at the boundaries of banal film biography. Sometimes Bronson speaks directly to the camera in front of a black background. At other times, he appears in black tie and music-hall makeup in front of a theater full of appreciative patrons. His monologues are punctuated by exquisitely choreographed scenes of brutality. These are shot from low angles and accompanied by throbbing techno beats. The effect is a bit like Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange re-imagined as a one-man stage show stripped of any political implications.
Bronson’s crimes become a kind of performance art, which is an interesting choice. They say one definition of insanity is when you repeat the same action expecting a different result. Bronson must therefore not be insane. He repeats the same actions expecting the same results. He goes out of his way to avoid different outcomes. During one incident, he’s allowed to go to the prison art room and work one on one with an instructor. He’s not very good at art, and we don’t believe he really cares. But when it appears he may be showing progress, what does he do? He takes the instructor hostage and is beaten senseless by guards. “I showed magic in there!” he shouts after one brawl. What does he expect, a standing ovation?
I believe most of us, no matter how self-destructive, expect some sort of reward for our behavior. Is Bronson then an extreme masochist, who only wants to be hurt? Who knows. I suppose Refn was wise to leave out any sort of an explanation. One thing’s certain: Hardy’s portrayal is a terrifying, charming, altogether mesmerizing individual. Essentially, this is a man you’ll be thankful is locked up. As the famed inmate, whose bald head, upturned mustache, and imposing physique (usually nude or in white long- sleeved T-shirts) resembled that of a cartoon carnival strongman, Hardy is a whirlwind force of nature.
He stomps around a cell like a one-track pain train, leaping into battle with rabid-dog intensity (in one sequence, he actually takes on a Doberman). As much as Refn retains a precision grip on proceedings, it is Hardy’s central performance that holds it together. Hardy leaves us in little doubt that this is a man so comfortable with his own atavistic impulses he’ll do whatever it takes to preserve them.
Bronson so immediately and definitively establishes its template. Each scene soon plays like a disturbed Loony Tunes cartoon replete with concluding punch(line). The film becomes, bizarrely enough, the portrait of a genius misunderstood and marginalized by a bureaucratic and hypocritical social order. He’s a man who seems to have found his natural habitat in the clink.
The film takes us on a twisted trip through Bronson’s psyche. It’s ultimately using him as a way to self-reflexively explore the allure and thrill of violence, especially to those who only experience one step removed from any danger.
In other words, it’s all of us in the audience.
Image Source: Vice