Before The Neon Demon There Was: Bronson

Andrew reviews the biopic of Britain's most notorious prisoner, Bronson.

My first encounter with Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn came with my 35mm viewing of his 2008 surreal biopic of Britain's most notorious prisoner, Michael Peterson aka Bronson.  Starring Tom Hardy as the titular Bronson in what might still be his greatest performance as an actor to date, the film is a fourth-wall breaking biography told in the subject's own words via voiceover narration and a performance art theater show functioning as interior monologue.  Treading a fine line between incomprehensible horror and hilarious black comedy, the film and it's director seem less interested in what makes that kind of sociopathy tick than how Peterson creates the larger than life persona and character of Bronson for himself.  Picked up initially for a petty crime, Bronson instead finds new notoriety and infamy as England's most violent prisoner when his newfound niche seems to involve throttling prison guards and orderlies for the sake of it.  At one point Bronson is briefly released back into society where he becomes an illegal street boxing sensation before deliberately placing himself back in imprisonment.  Most confounding and relentlessly fascinating about Bronson is the mercurial motivation driving his actions, which are born less out of uncivilized masculinity than sheer boredom.  When a moment of redemption in the eyes of society and the prison warden arises for instance, we think foolishly Bronson is finally ready to grow up only to impulsively go backwards again and again with the same old routine of holding a prison guard or staff member hostage for no other reason than causing some mayhem.  The end is always the same for Bronson in solitary confinement but the thrill of engaging his prison guards is just too insatiable to resist.

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Where Refn's only loose cannon performances up to this point came from Kim Bodnia in Pusher and Bleeder, Tom Hardy in the role and figure of Michael Peterson marks the first performance in Refn's films that truly leaps off the screen.  To say Hardy is electrifying in a performance the confines of the picture frame can barely contain is putting it mildly.  It's a spectacularly energetic performance working on all four cylinders and elevates the still imprisoned Bronson into an almost mythological figure.  The film is peppered with supporting performances that are generally solid but Bronson is predominantly a one man show acted by Hardy, directed by Refn and shot by Only God Forgives and Eyes Wide Shut cinematographer Larry Smith.  One movie that often gets compared to Bronson is inevitably Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange for it's mixture of Old England with classical music, symmetrical visual precision, voiceover narration and brutal outbursts of extreme hand to hand violence.  Years before Under Your Spell and Tick of the Clock became synonymous with Drive, Bronson also marked the first time Refn became acquainted with composer Johnny Jewel, notably with the Glass Candy song Digital Versicolor which plays over a key montage when Bronson becomes a street fighter.  Initially prior to catching up with Refn's other films including Drive and Valhalla Rising, it was easy to write Bronson off as a wannabe but in context with relation to his other work it's a rock solid effort you could argue is legitimately Refn's greatest film.  

Tom Hardy and Nicolas Winding Refn have certainly come a long way since Bronson which still remains a cult favorite which never broke into the mainstream consciousness in the ways Drive or Mad Max: Fury Road may have.  That said, Bronson finds both media giants decidedly at the peak of their powers.  What was intended as another post-Fear X director-for-hire assignment made around the time he directed Agatha Christie's Miss Marple turned out to be one of his most compulsively rewatchable and deliriously entertaining films.  Where Refn tends to be methodically paced with emphasis on thousand yard stares and long takes, Bronson is wickedly energetic, awake and hyper to the point of being bug eyed.  Most biographies of a violent criminal would take the high moral ground and attempt to explain their antisocial and psychotic behavior, but in the hands of a gifted visual director with such a keen mastery of sound, image and editing we're left to ponder into Bronson's sociopathy ourselves.  Truthfully the nonjudgmental character studies have always been more engrossing for leaving much of the heavy lifting and comprehension up to the viewer and we'll never truly know what's in Bronson's head anyway so why try and figure it out when you can admire the spectacle he puts on show?


- Andrew Kotwicki