Charles Bronson, who was born Michael Peterson but changed his name when he became a bare knuckle boxer during his rare time outside of jail, is Britain’s most violent and notorious prisoner. Born in 1952, he has spent more than 34 years inside over 120 different prisons — including a stint in all three high security mental institutions — with 30 of those years in solitary confinement. Most of his crimes were committed while behind bars and include various hostage takings, assaults on guards and other inmates, and the attempted murder of a pedophile. Not bad for a fella who started his sentencing at 22 when he robbed a post office for just shy of 27 pounds ($15) and ended up with a seven-year sentence.
Nicholas Winding Refn and his co-writer Brock Norman Brock create what amounts to more of a performance piece — a one-man stage show loosely based on the infamous inmate’s wild antics. Though a fair comparison has been drawn to A Clockwork Orange, this felt more like David Lynch and John Cameron Mitchell collaborated on an episode of “Oz.” Tom Hardy puts on a staggering and star-making performance as the prisoner, loping about with a shorn pate and an old-timey circus strongman’s handlebar moustache. Hardy deftly blends charisma with menace, so you don’t know whether he’ll grin or gut you. He’s nothing short of brilliant — but unfortunately, it’s an uneven and experimental flick. Narratively, Bronson opens with Hardy addressing a vaudeville audience (and the camera), often adopting garish greasepaint clownface. It abandons the device towards the last half of the film, and then picks it up again, as if Refn lacked confidence to maintain the monologues. There are also great gaping drifts of nothing, even when Refn is trying to create a sense of the infinite drudgery of solitary, and it causes a casual drag which pervades the action sequences.
Even stranger, Refn decided to forego mimicking the actual tribulations of Bronson’s life in exchange for fictionalized set-ups. Granted, what Refn imagines is pretty insane, such as stripping naked in front of a guard whom Bronson kidnaps, and violently berating the man to help butter him before the impending stormtrooper onslaught. Or taking the art teacher hostage, painting himself completely black (more full-frontal fun for those who enjoy wang), and painting up the hostage to recreate Magritte’s “Son of Man,” complete with green apple and bowler. Bronson spends most of the film nude, bashing the hell out of guards with his bare hands and standing proudly in cages streaked with blood. But that’s the problem: it’s most of the film. The entire project feels too theatrical, as if it were a one-man rant being delivered from the stage, opting for colored lighting and low-angle camera work to make it seem arty. When Kubrick did that, it was his unique style; when other filmmakers do it, it’s them trying to be Kubrick.
What’s most baffling is that it totally avoids the sheer poetic insanity of the real Bronson’s stunts. The real Bronson is fucking batshit. The dude’s still in jail, having taken hostages up until he was 52 years old, when his spectacles were broken. His ransom demands alone are something I wish Henry Rollins would grunt into a smoky microphone. One time, he requested an inflatable doll, a helicopter, and a cup of tea. Another time, it was a plane to Cuba, twin Uzis with 5,000 rounds, and a can of beans. He was videotaped during one standoff carrying a spear and singing “Yellow Submarine.” This guy is fucking crazier than a shithouse rat, so why in the sainted balls of Nebuchadnezzar would you take it down a notch?
Fortunately, it doesn’t really detract from Tom Hardy’s grinning maniac performance. I hesitate to use the term tour de force, mostly because it sounds like a pretentious cliché, but if I don’t flaunt my fucking film degree occasionally it makes me resent the fucking student loan payments. He’s a fucking dervish with a lurching gait and devilish chuckle. Hardy’s Bronson is an unapologetic savage, proud of his criminal ways. In his manic fits, he revels like Nero battling Charlie Daniels in a burning barn. But there’s a brutality, a fucking berserker always lurking beneath the surface, ready to lash out with a steak-fisted bashing and foaming at the mouth with “cunts” and “fucks.” Hardy’s Bronson is what Daniel Day Lewis has nightmares about.
Bronson only fails in that it doesn’t really live up to the potential of its subject. Bronson the prisoner wanted to be a star. He needed to stay in prison — that’s the only thing that he was good at in life. He tried to strangle a pedophile, so they would send him back to regular prison. Refn’s staging would have worked if he’d stuck with it — and there are moments where it’s astounding. But, truly, Bronson lives and dies on Hardy’s epic performance — which brings up the question of Oscar eligibility, since the film premiered in 2008. Plus, I can’t wait to see pictures of him standing next to a frightened Meryl Streep in magazines. It’s a fascinating watch, but you do feel as though you’re confined right alongside him.