Raw, blistering, harsh and compelling in the way that only a really good "prison film" can be, Nicolas Wining Refn's Bronson is a rather rough experience. Fortunately it's also very smart, dark, intelligent and disturbing, supported by a force-of-nature lead performance and a screenplay that focuses more on the "character study" angle and less on the "wow, prison sure is disgusting" perspective.
Based (apparently very closely) on actual events, Bronson is about a British thug named Michael Peterson, a rough, gruff, and muscle-bound troublemaker who somehow earned the title of Britian's most violent prisoner. Incarcerated for a stupid (but non-violent) post office robbery, Peterson adopts the moniker of American film star Charles Bronson and begins a long and rather unpleasant life behind bars. Although he's more of a angry man than an outright evil one, poor Bronson has a serious problem keeping his temper in check. Stuck in a cell with little to do besides build muscles and pace around nervously, Bronson snatches every opportunity to dole out some raw-knuckled fisticuffs whenever the "screws" invade his cell. One of the more compelling ironies is that, despite his prediliction for bare-fisted violence, Bronson is actually a very smart and sensitive man. The argument could be made that prison life transformed an aimless and frustrated man into a career criminal of the most notorious kind. Aside from a few short-lived releases (and a nasty stint in an icky asylum), Bronson has spent decades behind bars -- despite the fact that his only real crimes were a few rough robberies and a whole lot of prison cell brawling. Whether or not this man deserved to spend two decades in solitary confinement is one of the more interesting arguments to be found in Bronson -- and of course there's an assumption that maybe prison life made the man a lot "nastier" than he would have been otherwise.
But after decades of isolation, anger, and general misery, Bronson discovers an outlet for his emotional handicaps: Art and poetry. Danish filmmaker Nick Refn walks an tightrope between allowing us to despise the often-animalistic Bronson and compelling us to see the more vulnerable side of a man who has known little but bloody knuckles and brutality. There's also a subtle-but-strong implication that ... maybe Bronson wouldn't have been such an angry guy if he'd had some sort of artistic outlets earlier in life. Or maybe the guy just LIKES beating the snot out of people. Like the best character studies, Bronson doesn't chastise or deify its subject. We get to see the ugly, the funny, the disturbing, and the charming sides of Charlie Bronson, and we're left to decide how we feel about the guy.
Which brings us to the lead performance by one Tom Hardy. Quite frankly this is one of the roughest, rawest, and most powerfully commanding performances I've seen in a long time. Seen previously in films like Black Hawk Down, Star Trek: Nemesis, Marie Antoinette, and RocknRolla, Mr. Hardy delivers a stunning performance that reminds you why the phrase "force of nature" is often used in film reviews. Reminiscent of Eric Bana's powerful work in the slightly similar Chopper, Hardy provides a character that is nothing short of drop-dead fascinating. Plus, his director throws in lots of great stuff for the actor, including a series of framing segments in which Hardy is allowed to perform for a judgmental audience. The man is simply amazing. Raw, vulnerable, sympathetic AND villainous, Hardy turns Bronson into one of the most fascinating anti-heroes in recent memory.
But a challenging character story and a stunning lead performance are only two parts of the equation. Luckily, Mr. Refn (director of the well-received Pusher trilogy) keeps things more than interesting enough in the visual department. Although much of the film takes place in deep, dank, dark cells, chambers, and hallways, Refn keeps mixing things up with colors, shadows, and lots of creative little tricks. Many good prison movies get you knee-deep into the feeling of incarceration -- but this movie goes a step further by putting you into an actual prisoner. Best of all, Bronson doesn't spin its wheels or bother with unnecessary blather. This is a tight-fisted, bare-knuckled, and consistently challenging story about a man who's really very fascinating -- but damn, you really wouldn't want to stand in the same room with him.
In some ways Bronson feels a lot like the prison flicks you know, love, and squirm through ... but once in a while it transcends the genre and turns into something quite wonderfully ... weird. And I'll say it one more time: Tom Hardy's performance ... wow.