By: Max Elliot
“Charles Bronson is Britain’s most famous prisoner. He has spent 34 years in jail, 30 of them in solitary confinement. He has not yet been granted a release date.” This is the closing text from Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 film Bronson, which is a biopic about the titular character. Charles Bronson, as a character is about as brash and bold as somebody can get. The 92 minute film portrays the series of events in Bronson with the typical directorial panache that Refn would go on to later use in 2012’s phenomenal Drive. Because of the stellar directing, exquisite acting from Tom Hardy as Bronson, as well as the soundtrack, Bronson is a film that pushes the boundary of not only who can be a protagonist, but also to what lengths can an audience be pushed to be made uncomfortable.
Tom Hardy shines in this role, portraying the nihilistic, brutish, and troublesome Bronson. Whenever he is on screen, which is most every scene, viewers should expect to be on edge as they witness the peaks and valleys of his performance. Hardy is constantly screaming his head off in an effort to achieve fame for himself. Instead of being traditional, and becoming a singer or an actor (which Hardy ironically says he’s no good at) Bronson decides to become the best hell raiser he can be. “I saw prison as a hotel”, he says early in the film. fit for someone of my royal standing. Charles Bronson eschews what society sees as normalcy and chooses to just get into trouble, knocking out whoever is in his way. And boy does he excel at that. His transgressions exponentially accelerate. From what starts as getting into various brawls with random people and law enforcement declines (or ascends from Bronson’s point of view) to attempted murder and hostage taking. What this does to the audience is make them really uncomfortable and question whether or not they are witnessing cinematic art, or is this simply Tom Hardy pushing the envelope of what can be seen as acceptable on film?
I personally thinks that this is art, albeit very uncomfortable, but ultimately rewarding. In an era of people wanting to become famous by having a sex tape, or being on a reality show, it’s nice to see an R rated nightmarish version of where that quest for fame can lead.
The term nightmare is not used lightly here. On top of the uneasy performance from Hardy, Refn’s choices as a director really have the ability to make the audience squirm. Refn, along with director of photography Larry Smith restrict the image in such a magnificent way as to never lets us forget that this movie takes place primarily in a series of prisons. The shot composition puts us right in the cell with Bronson, there is nary a wide shot to be seen. Most everything is in close up and holds for upwards of 50 seconds. Even though Bronson is a paltry hour and a half, it feels a lot longer because of these 50 second (and sometimes even longer) shots. Some of these shots too, involve Tom Hardy breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience, seeing as how this is his story that he is telling us, this seems appropriate, but nonetheless very creepy.
I mentioned the peaks and valleys of Hardy’s performance earlier. One second he could be carrying on in conversation with someone, the next minute he could be punching that man’s face in. Bronson is a schizophrenic character who is either up or down. There is no in between. Building on to this two faced approach to the character, the soundtrack lends a more than significant hand. Ranging from beautiful classical operatic movements that contrast somehow wondrously with the scenes of wanton violence, to very kinetic Euro synth infused dance beats that stay with you long after credits. The soundtrack really helps this movie read almost like a modern day version of A Clockwork Orange. Anytime a movie is compared to Kubrick, that’s got to be a mark in its favor, right?
On the surface, Bronson could be wrapped up as a bombastic tale that effuses creeds like violence for violence’s sake. I think it’s something more. While it is very bluntly provocative, I think it shows us the same things we usually see in movies: a protagonist with a very clear cut goal. Charles Bronson wanted to be famous, and he achieved that. Audiences may grimace at some of the ways he went about achieving that fame, but it was still fame at the end of the day. Who are we to judge him?