Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, director and co-writer of the impressive “Bronson,” has made a name for himself hawking violence as a product. Most widely known for his “Pusher” trilogy that explores Denmark’s deadly drug underworld, Refn is surely more than aware of the parallel between himself and the subject of his sixth feature when it comes to making a spectacle of violence. “My name is Charlie Bronson,” whispers Tom Hardy, who delivers a superb, essentially solo performance as the eponymous character, “and all my life I’ve wanted to be famous.” For Bronson, it barely makes sense. And how could it? At 56, the real-life Charlie Bronson, born Michael Peterson, has spent 34 of the last 35 years in solitary confinement in various British correctional facilities, earning the moniker “Britain’s most violent prisoner.” The historical Charlie Bronson is a sociopath and a lunatic, a senseless rage-addict and a goon. But apply the words that open the film to the persona Refn manifests in Peterson and, more subtly, Refn himself, and “Bronson” offers a much more sensible portrait of the artist than it ever does of its subject. But ambitions at auto-portraiture aside, “Bronson” is, at its heart, a deeply engaging character study that suggests this man may be more (or less) than, but never equal to, the sum of his parts.
“Bronson” charms first and foremost in its framing device: Peterson is cast as his own narrator before an audience that seems to applaud at his command. He dresses elegantly, gestures wildly, and wears minstrel make-up of various colors throughout the performance, conducting himself like the ringmaster of some surreal circus. The stage, it seems, is Bronson’s fantasy, where he’s free to put his emotional world into order. When he’s first imprisoned, and finally alone, Peterson begins to cry; Bronson, on stage and in whiteface, by contrast, reveals that they are crocodile tears and the audience begins to laugh on cue. Here, the ego of Michael Peterson seems to recede, and the precarious balance between the id and the superego manifests itself in the bursts of violence that are calmly—and even comically—retold by the performative narrator.
However monotonous the subject matter could potentially be, Refn finds a way to constantly reinvigorate the contrast between Bronson and the world around him; he’s taken to the hole, then to the insane asylum, where he performs and sabotages himself in bombastic fashion. It’s with Peterson as a free man, however, released from prison for nearly 70 days in 1988, that the film offers up the closest thing to a sensible psychological portrait of someone who, up to that point and from that point thereafter, resembles something more akin to a force of nature than a human being. Peterson returns to the town of his birth and falls in with a set of predominantly-homosexual mobsters, who lease him out for dogfights and bare-knuckle boxing matches. He dons the name Charlie Bronson in homage to the action star of the same name, famous for his role in “Death Wish.” Here again, his penchant for violence is totally divested from any emotional disposition, but these scenes in particular are uniquely cruel. He’s unable to express mature feelings of desire for women, and, combined with his rippling physique, this deeply repressed libido renders him a sort of man-child that the scenes in prison never so much as hint at.
But however these broad psychoanalytic gestures can be interpreted, they provide little in the way of a satisfactory theory for why the man is the way he is. Far from lionizing him, Refn isn’t interested in reducing Bronson to an animal, a rebel or a martyr. The film’s haunting final scene is certainly a moment of revelation in relief with the story that Refn chooses to tell, but it’s less a moralization than a confirmation of suspicions. Throughout the film proper, however, Bronson remains a living paradox: a submissive sadist, a free slave, an absurd hero.
In the moments on the outside—where the swaggering Bronson is, for once, ill at ease—the film is at its funniest. Flushed and shaking with rage, he manages to suppress a violent outburst when his sweetheart declines his marriage proposal for another man. Believing his fighting prowess would find him fame overnight, he complains to his handler that his most recent display was underappreciated “magic”: “Magic? You just pissed on a gypsy in the middle of fucking nowhere. It’s hardly the hottest ticket in town.” The world takes its measure of Charlie Bronson, and finds him wanting. But his return to prison isn’t far behind.
The film’s final third, where Bronson begins to produce drawings and paintings for his prison’s art program, synthesizes the film’s content with its narrative frame without reducing the enigma of its subject. Bronson’s art is, from what can be seen, mostly cartoonish grotesquery more reminiscent of Daniel Johnston than Basquiat, but his final “piece” is executed with as much theatrical verve and visual splendor in a series of moments as the rest of the film offers in its entirety.
“Bronson” is, by nature, just short of flawless. Despite an incredible performance from Hardy, the story’s limitations render every other character—from his girlfriend to his quick-witted handler to the chilling pedophile that approaches him in the asylum—fundamentally marginal. It would be a pleasure to watch Hardy’s undeniable range and power at play alongside other talent for extended periods of time; for all his breadth, his character has only two speeds (break-neck and dead-stop) and very little depth. Instead, “Bronson” remains a riveting one-man show, and that’s all it ever asked to be.
—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.