Nicolas Winding Refn
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 04 May 2009
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
The subject of director Nicholas Winding Refn’s film Bronson is real-life British prisoner Michael Gordon Peterson, who was first incarcerated for armed robbery in 1974. Peterson, who changed his name to the more archetypically tough moniker Charles Bronson, went on to become not a famous criminal, but a famous prisoner, his prison time continually extended due to his brutal behavior behind bars. He is now serving a life sentence. Rather than telling this unusual story with straightforward realism, Refn is more unorthodox, intercutting episodes from Bronson’s life with sequences that feature the criminal staring wild-eyed into the camera, narrating his own story from a prison cell, or in the film’s most out-there touch, standing onstage in front of a stuffy-looking audience, regaling them like a conjurer or an old vaudevillian. The choice transforms the film from what might have been a dour exercise into something a bit funkier.
The biopic has predictably courted controversy, slapped with the usual allegations of glamorizing violence, and as with many a film with a charismatic criminal at its heart, the allegations aren’t entirely unearned. As played by Tom Hardy, Bronson is a riveting figure. Hardy gives a fearsome, funny performance, and when he addresses the camera directly we do get drawn into his world as co-conspirators. But it isn’t all romanticized hypermasculine thuggery. The film also makes the narrowness, and the ugliness, of Bronson’s existence explicit—I don’t remember the last film I saw that was quite so heavy on mucus, fecal matter, and sensationally unflattering close-ups.
The story does have a bit of satiric kick, swiping at the inhumanity of the prison system as well as the absurdity of Bronson’s fame (even as it adds to the latter). But the trouble with Bronson is that it doesn’t cover much new ground, and more glaringly, it’s an episodic film in which the episodes are more or less the same, a compendium of violent outbursts and surreal asides. Even Hardy’s performance is hamstrung to some degree by the story’s repetitive nature: once he nails Bronson’s chilling, human time bomb aura, there’s nowhere further to take it. The film also flirts uncomfortably with homophobia on more than one occasion, contrasting Bronson’s machismo with a series of broadly drawn, fey male characters who he antagonizes.
Hardy’s work is the chief reason, and depending on your sensibilities, perhaps reason enough, to see the film. He appears at one point with a glitter-streaked face à la Aladdin Sane-era Bowie, but Bronson’s energy is closer to Sid Vicious tearing “My Way” apart from the inside out: you half expect him to turn a gun on his staid audience. It’s this caged intensity that haunts, as does the film’s unspoken, resounding central question: what in the world do we do with a man like Bronson?
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