It’s possible that instead of mother’s milk, Danish film school drop-out Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher) nursed at the teat of Stanley Kubrick. With its love of ultraviolence set to classical music and slow tracking shots, Refn’s Bronson is a rhapsodic and reverent homage to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange that often threatens to explode into an imitative wallow in romanticized violence.
Loaded with style, to both good and bad effect, Bronson is an operatic, blood-filled orgy based on the undoubtedly embellished real life of England’s most notorious and violent prison inmate. Bronson’s story is told oftentimes in direct camera address as he explains, “All my life I wanted to be famous. I knew I was made for better things.” In a rapid-fire navel-gazing analysis on his childhood, we see an ordinary family nurturing a violence-crazed babe. “Nothing wonky about my upbringing,” he affirms.
In a nod to the beloved, enabling mommy of James Cagney’s White Heat, Mum (Amanda Burton) is always sheltering her brat from the authorities. When teenage Michael Peterson — who later changes his name in homage to movie tough guy Charles Bronson — robs a post office in 1974 for a meager take, he’s thrown in prison. “You won’t do the seven,” Mum cheerily tells him, “you’ll be out in four.”
He ends up racking up the majority of his 35 years in prison in solitary confinement for his violent tendencies. Though you imagine solitary would do something to a man, Refn never shows much variation in Bronson’s violent psyche from childhood to prison confinement. When his attacks on prison staff prove too much, he spends a brief sojourn in a mental institution. Later, he discovers art — the real Bronson became a prolific artist and author — but his violent impulses rage on.
Refn probably burns too much of the juice he could be using for character motivation or some perspective on crime and punishment on the style-for-style’s-sake gangsta glam of Guy Ritchie. It’s a pity, because Refn is clearly capable of much more. He managed to delve deeper into the Copenhagen wise guys he presented in Pusher II and Pusher III, allowing the psychological complexity of his characters to gradually emerge.
But in the amphetamine-paced Bronson, there’s no time for such below-the-skin analysis. There are, for instance, several flamboyantly gay characters who mentor Bronson throughout the course of the film — an art teacher and boxing promoter — but we never get a sense of why such a violence-crazed macho man tolerated their eccentricities.
When, during a brief stint outside prison, Bronson takes up with a cold-hearted dame, his devotion to her is all cartoon surface: you never get a sense there is someone capable of love beneath his rabid, posturing exterior. Refn seems more thrilled by sexing up his tale of this career screw-up, alternating Bronson’s gory misadventures with shots of Bronson in white-face theatrical makeup on a stage performing his life for an alternately disgusted and thrilled audience that could very well be a proxy for the film audience.
Star Tom Hardy has a face like a rubbery hard-boiled egg and a demeanor that combines the sadistic saunter of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Gangs of New York‘s Bill the Butcher, and a 19th century handlebar mustached strongman. He spends a good portion of the film stripped down to his birthday suit, greased up with purloined cooking fat and streaked in blood. A favorite treat is kidnapping prison staff and then waiting for the SWAT team to arrive so a naked Bronson can pin them to the mat.
There are moments when Bronson goes up against “The Man” that you root for him; after all, institutions such as these clearly harbor some sociopathic personalities who enjoy wielding power over their charges.
And you have to admire an actor willing to spend as much time as Hardy does with the family jewels on frank display even if the one-note portrait of this piece of human gristle goes down hard.