When we’re young, we are told to stand up to bullies, to defend ourselves against those who prey on the supposedly weak. They are the real cowards, we are told, and once exposed, their true colors will be revealed.
The British criminal Charles Bronson, the subject of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s strangely fascinating but somewhat impenetrable new character study, isn’t a bully in the conventional sense. He doesn’t taunt his victims; he simply pulverizes them, sometimes with warning, sometimes without. He is remorseless, but hardly emotionless – a study in unadulterated rage, and not a man to provoke or engage.
For Refn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Brock Norman Brock, Bronson’s unsuppressed anger is both a blessing and a curse. The movie derives real potency from Tom Hardy’s spirited performance; he is brilliantly exaggerated, a whirling dervish in the lean body of a fighting machine, and he can be perversely charming when he’s not bashing skulls. Hardy’s style suits the movie, which is surreal in much the same way as A Clockwork Orange.
Yet Bronson’s tone, despite its hallucinatory flourishes, is sometimes distressingly one-note, precisely because of his unceasing rage. When we meet the character, he’s a teenage boy rifling through pockets and pummeling his teachers. As an adult, he’s no different – all bark with a ferocious bite to match, a point hammered home early and too often.
After his release from prison for violent crimes impossible to enumerate, the movie picks up. Bronson doesn’t change, really, but his circumstances do. He is recruited to be an underground fighter – at one point, in a moment of appropriate symbolism, he's pitted against a rabid dog – and no longer yearns for the familiar comfort of his prison cell, lovingly referred to as his “hotel room.” He even meets a girl (Juliet Oldfield), but Bronson, who renamed himself after the American Death Wish star, isn’t cut out for romance.
He is whisked back to prison after a typically audacious robbery, and that’s where he remains today. (A March parole bid for the real-life criminal was denied.) Bronson prides himself on his reputation as Britain’s most ruthless and expensive prisoner, and has spent much of the past 35 years in solitary confinement, since he can’t resist attacking his guards. He is an animal, and neither Refn nor Hardy seems interested in exploring his motives. Bronson is who he is, and that is, as he informs us with scary intensity, “nobody to fuck with.”
Where is the appeal in Bronson? There is certainly little in the character, whom only Bronson’s doting mother could love. But there is a lot to admire in Hardy’s performance. It’s not exactly nuanced, but the actor brings a commanding presence to the screen. He recently starred in Guy Ritchie’s violent RocknRolla, which should surprise no one who’s seen Bronson, but he also played Bill Sikes in a 2007 TV production of Oliver Twist. His range is impressive, and he makes Refn’s latest an arresting spectacle, if not a particularly enlightening one.
Having been yanked from Bay Area theaters in criminally short order, Bronson is available OnDemand, and will arrive on DVD soon. With the proper exposure, it should become a cult favorite.