As anyone in today’s society knows, most everyone wants to be famous. In the past, the only path to becoming famous was either by doing something truly great or notable. In most cases, this meant curing a disease or winning a gold medal. Today, you don’t really have to do anything to see your name in the papers or have your picture on the front of a magazine. Every tabloid magazine you see these days is plastered with the faces of people who have done nothing to deserve their notoriety. All you have to do is either be born into a wealthy family, or have a bunch of kids to see your name in lights. None of which require any actual discernible talent. What is a person to do if they don’t possess the talent to sing or dance? Will they ever become famous?
Writer/Director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy), explores this idea in his surreal biopic of madman Charles Bronson. For Michael Peterson, who was later renamed Charles Bronson, his path to fame would arrive by becoming the most violent prisoner in Britain (everyone has a dream). Peterson, who was born into a relatively normal family in Luton, England, turned to a life of crime because of the dwindling economy in early 70′s England. He took a sawed off shotgun into a post office and took the place for 26 British pounds. This robbery earned him seven years behind bars.
Once inside, Bronson (Tom Hardy) tells us through a voice over which runs the course of the film, that he ended up loving jail. He refers to prison as a hotel room and a place where he could make a name for himself. The way Bronson goes about making a name for himself and sharpening his “skills” however is by fighting anyone and everyone. Fellow inmates or prison guards, all meet the end of his fists (or worse). His wild behavior leads to him being transferred to almost every prison in the country, none of which keep him for long, as he begins to hold guards hostage and is increasingly more violent. All of these acts lead him to eventually being moved to a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. Charles doesn’t much care for being locked in with “loonies” as he describes the other inmates, and hatches a plot to get himself back into a proper prison. His “attempt” to get out leads to him being put in solitary confinement for 26 years!
After causing millions in property damage to the mental hospital, through a fluke in the system he regains his freedom. Once free, he goes back to his parents home and then meets with his Uncle Jack, who runs a brothel of sorts. Bronson begins a relationship with one of his uncles girls, and also meets with a former inmate he did time with. This man, Paul (Matt King), becomes his fight promoter as well, and Peterson begins fighting under the name of Charles Bronson. His freedom however is brief and Charles is soon back in prison for another infraction. We are informed at the end of the film through text on the screen, that Bronson is still in prison to this day. It is astounding that a man who has never killed or raped anyone, but is such a force of violence to others, that he has been in solitary confinement for 30 of the now 34 years he has been in jail.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn has created a near masterpiece. He uses his camera and soundtrack to create a portrait of a guy who uses his violent alter ego to become notorious. Refn has said that Bronson is his homage to the late Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and with his use of carefully orchestrated violence set to classical music, it’s hard to not be reminded of “Clockwork.” Refn, who also penned the script with Brock Norman Brock, also allows Bronson to tell his own story. With sequences of Bronson on stage in clown makeup and a tuxedo, he tells his personal account of his life to an unseen theater audience. The only minor problem I had with the movie, is that the story doesn’t really go anywhere, but the fact that the film is about a man who is still in prison to this day might have something to do with that.
The most remarkable aspect of Bronson however, is the lead performance by British actor Tom Hardy. Hardy, as I found out has been in quite a few films I have seen, such as Layer Cake and Guy Ritchie’s gangster flick RockNRolla but never made an impression on me…until now. Hardy is superb as Bronson. It’s a transformation in the vein of DeNiro in Raging Bull. For the role of Bronson, Hardy packed on over 40 lbs. and shaved his head, but the physical aspect of his performance is only second to his wonderful acting here. One minute he is a scary force to be reckoned with and the next, delivering some hilarious dialogue. I couldn’t take my eyes off him whenever he was on screen. It’s a very unpredictable and charismatic performance, one that if the Oscar voters have any guts, will give him at the very least a Best Actor nomination for. He is that good in this.
Refn has put together a great film here, with an amazing lead actor. A film that should be seen but the nature of the material will most likely limit it’s exposure. Finally, the film also raises the question of “what exactly do we do with a guy like Charles Bronson?” His violent nature makes him too dangerous to be let free. But has all the time in prison, most in solitary confinement, irreversibly damaged him even more and led to his violent tendencies only becoming more pronounced?