Thursday, December 9, 2010


I have always been of two minds when it comes to prisons and their purpose in our society.  On the one hand, I get that they are places of punitive punishment and I understand the almost Pavlovian psychology behind the idea of prison reforming its subjects --- if you're good (salivate), you don't have to stay in prison (whimper).  But I also understand the theory that going through the hell of prison life can just as easily make demons as born-again saints.  But what can society do about someone who just loves --- LOVES --- prison?

Bronson is based on the real life of Britain's most violent (and expensive) inmate, Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy), who prefers to go by his boxing name of Charles Bronson.  He doesn't blame his life on his childhood (it was pretty normal) or his parents (who were pretty nice).  No, he just always liked to fight.  Bullies, teachers, anybody who got in his way.  Not surprisingly, he went to jail at an early age; he robbed a post office with a sawed-off shotgun, got away with about $30, was immediately caught, and was sentenced to seven years in prison.  If he behaved, he might get out in as little as three years.  But why would he want to get out?  Bronson referred to his prison cells as "hotel rooms," and the infamy he received for beating prison guards and other inmates fed his desire to be famous.  On the outside world, he was just a tough guy, but in prison he was the tough guy.  His favorite trick was to take a hostage, strip naked, grease up his body (with butter, grease paint, or whatever) and then take on four or five prison guards at a time.  His mother always said, "do what you know," and he knew nothing better than fighting.  In fact, aside from sixty-odd days in the late 80s, Charles Bronson has been incarcerated, uninterrupted, since 1974, with about 30 of those years spent in solitary confinement.  That sounds preposterous for a criminal that has never killed, but what can you do with someone who loves prison so much?

Director/co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn doesn't attempt to answer that question.  Like his Pusher films, Refn is more interested in the crimes themselves than the meaning behind them.  Bronson is stylized in a way that I have never seen with a biopic.  The main character narrates at times, speaks directly to the camera at others, and even stands on stage in a theater, performing a one-man-show for the packed audience.  Why?  I don't know...maybe to serve as a metaphor for Bronson's desire to be famous, to perform for some unknown audience?  It doesn't really matter.  This film is not concerned with the motives or consequences of Bronson's actions, it is all about celebrating his love of violence and self-destruction.

As the only actor of consequence in the film, Tom Hardy's performance is the make-or-break factor in this film.  I am vaguely familiar with Hardy, having seen him most recently in Inception (and also in Black Hawk Down and Layer Cake), but he is unrecognizable in this role.  He bulked up considerably, shaved his head, and grew a fantastic handlebar mustache --- presumably to give people a reason to make fun of him, which gives him a reason to kick their ass --- and filled his role with a physicality that was intimidating and positively frightening.  Hardy does a great job portraying Bronson as an animal, but I also liked how socially awkward (and surprisingly polite) he played Charlie in social situations.  Like Daniel Day-Lewis' work in Gangs of New York (another handlebar mustache role), Hardy managed to add depth and complexity to a role that could easily have been cartoonish in the hands of a lesser actor.

Despite Hardy's excellent performance, I was left somewhat indifferent to the movie as a whole.  Nicolas Winding Refn's artistic indulgences with the narrative initially appear to have a greater purpose in mind, like they are being inserted into the film to give Bronson's life a direction that is never explicitly stated.  By the end of the film, though, those choices (talking to the camera, performing for a crowd) have been abandoned for almost the entire second half of the film.  That appears to be a lack of conviction on Refn's part, in my eyes.  I don't mind that the movie didn't have a dramatic arc, since Hardy was so charismatic, but I wish that his character's motivations were left either more or less explicit.  As they stand ("I want to be famous"), I don't really see how effective they are in the character's progression.

Don't get me wrong, this film is pretty entertaining.  If you like seeing people get punched in the face by a greased-up naked man (and who doesn't?), this movie is a must-see.  I applaud Tom Hardy for the confidence he has with his body image, too, since there is a lot of his greased-up man bits in this movie.  And, despite my issues with the direction, I have to admit that Refn did a good job taking a seemingly directionless story and making it entertaining.  If he had gone a few steps further, this could have been great.


  1. I think the problem is in the subject itself. I will start by stating that I am generally not a fan of biopics. I usually loathe them. Yet, this one was entertaining. The inherent flaw in biopics is that not every person's life - as interesting as it may be - has a story arc and/or climax. This is a shining example of that issue. I think this was done about as well as it could have been, which is to say it was entertaining, but not a very complete movie. I think the stylized stuff was used as a gloss to hide the flaw of its material. I enjoyed the artsy fartsy junk (as I often do), but I thought he went a bit over-the-top with the stage stuff. It was a neat little metaphor and should have been left at that.

    Biopics blow, except for that one about Rick Deckard. That one was awesome.

  2. The Deckard biopic is so good, I have four versions on DVD.

    I think we came to more or less the same conclusion about this movie. Not hat I expected anything less...

    I hope you're sold on Hardy as an awesome actor. This and Warrior have me completely psyched for The Dark Night Rises

  3. I have no hope for Dark Night Rises. I think that the first two have great aspects going for them, but are completely wasted as a whole. I expect nothing less for the third installment. Yet, I am sure I will watch it the opening weekend... and I am sure I will love Hardy as much as I did Ledger in the last one.