There are many, many films that present violence artistically, but
Bronson is one of the few films I have ever seen that presents violence
as art and self-expression. Based on the real life of England’s most
violent inmate, Charles Bronson (born Michael Peterson), Nicholas
Winding Refn’s new film is a strange, beautiful and sometimes scary
meditation on the nature of self-expression and the nature of violence.
And in the middle of it all is the performance of a lifetime by Tom
Hardy, a tiny prettyboy actor who utterly transformed himself into a
brutal, monstrous mountain of a man.

The entire film is centered on that performance; there simply isn’t a
movie without Hardy working sheer willful magic. Refn has made some
interesting decisions with the film – he’s excised many of the colorful
escapades that make up Bronson’s Wikipedia entry, for one – and he’s
reimagined the man’s entire life as a performance. Refn intercuts the
‘biopic’ action with scenes of Bronson directly addressing the
audience, and with other sequences where he’s onstage before a crowd,
wearing a tux and greasepaint as he recounts the story of his violent
life in prison. The Bronson who addresses us directly seems to be the
hidden, thoughtful, personal side of the man (despite his penchant for
endless violence, Bronson is a man with self-reflection. Being in
solitary for almost 30 years will do that to you) while the stagebound
Bronson is the man who is playing for the cheap seats (and the tabloid
headlines), the man obsessed with fame and making a name for himself
(which he got, ironically, by taking up someone else’s name). It’s
Michael Peterson addressing us and Charles Bronson entertaining us.

But don’t mistake Bronson for an avante-garde movie. It’s brutal as
hell. Refn stages fights – usually Bronson against small armies of
guards – with beauty and precision. No two look or feel the same. Refn
also creates gorgeously grungy environments for all the prisons in
which Bronson ends up, allowing the settings to mirror the decay of the
system that has just no idea what to do with this man. At one point
they try to send him to an insane asylum and drug him into a vegetative
state, but his will is too strong. In another movie this will would
present itself as Bronson bucking the system to paint or make music or
deliver a speech. Here it presents itself as him forcing himself up
from a pharmaceutical coma to strangle another inmate. Violence is his

Unfortunately that theme becomes quickly apparent; if there’s anything
wrong with Bronson its that the film needs another avenue of
exploration of the character, as scenes of Bronson in prison fighting guards – while
usually wonderful to watch – do become repetitious. And because Refn
glosses over Bronson’s biggest moment – he led a multi-day riot – the
film isn’t really building to a thrilling climax. The climax of the
film, set in a prison art studio, has more of a thematic punch than a
visceral one, which is too bad since the movie seems to be going for
the visceral as well as the intellectual.

But again, no review of Bronson is complete with lavishing a ton of
praise on Tom Hardy. Truly one of the most incredible, consistent,
singular performances I have ever seen, his Bronson acheives almost
instant iconic status; even before the movie ended I had no question
that Hardy’s Bronson is one of the great film characters of all time.
He layers the character in unexpected ways, bringing to him unique tics
and a verging on the cartoonish set of reactions. Hardy can cock his
head one way for great comic effect and then the other way to induce
fear. If there’s a bit of justice in the cinematic universe, Hardy will
come out of this film with major traction, having proved himself an
actor of uncommon ability and depth.

8 out of 10