Thursday, 10 May 2012

Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008)

At one point during Bronson, Michael Peterson returns to his homeland of Luton after a long stint in prison. He's asked why he's returning by a fellow train passenger - he replies, "to make a name for myself". Michael Peterson (played by Tom Hardy in a career making performance) was and still is Britain's most violent prisoner and during the examples on show here of Peterson's undiluted animalistic outbursts, you'd expect this violent beast of a man to be a serial killer. In 1974 he was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison for a post office robbery, he got away with small change and no one was especially injured. Since Peterson's institutionalisation he has been moved 120 times while still a convict and to this day remains inside due to the years added to his sentence for his attacks on other convicts and prison staff. Now a legend of sorts and known as Charles Bronson (a pseudonym and alter-ego created by Peterson) he has well and truly made a name for himself, but at what cost and why?

Bronson is the perfect play mate with Andrew Dominik's excellent Chopper (2000); both films investigate the modern celebrity exposed from their real life subjects and show the dark side to masculinity in crisis. They both share similarities beyond the two incredible central performances on display and obviously come from the same place, however in Nicolas Winding Refn's hands Bronson becomes a entirely different animal, taking the viewer to the most unexpected places. The film is a surprisingly surreal and abstract experience, as Bronson explains and narrates events to a blank staring audience whilst dressed as what can only be described as vaudevillian performer. He looks closer to a supporting player from BBC's The League of Gentlemen than Britain's most violent criminal, but in this attire Winding is highlighting what Bronson really is, a performer.

The central theme to Winding's film is of a lost masculinity, a man without a place in the world, without footing. What can a man of limited intelligence and talent do to give his life meaning? Bronson options for violence, one thing he's genuinely good at; in his incarceration he has more control over his environment than when he's freed, he's happy with being institutionalised. He turns his violent acts into artistic set pieces, each one a new canvas to paint with fresh carnage. In one standout and frankly hilarious scene, Bronson kidnaps the prison librarian in a pathetic attempt to create trouble. While shouting at the librarian more than needs be and perversely forcing him to lube his naked body up for battle, we can only look on in disbelief and hold our mouths laughing, this should be disturbingly awful but Hardy is a joyous riot from start to finish. His masterpiece comes much later as once again he's kidnapped another staff member, this time his art teacher, who has up until now showed nothing but confidence in Bronson's artistic talents. He's proved himself a rather gifted illustrator, however he chooses to express himself artistically in other more drastic measures. Again this scene is unnerving, shocking, surreal, and violent.

Tom Hardy does I fine job in giving Bronson a delicate quality in certain scenes, adding rare glimpses of sensitivity that make him endearing if only for a moment. When returning to live with his parents and realising his belongings including his bed have been sold, are met with a childlike disappointment. Only moments after being let down by a woman he apparently loves, he sheds a tear then sets out to prove his love by bringing her a wedding ring - his violent outburst and domination of a jewellery store is again extreme in nature and counter balances the strange affection we have for him. Perhaps we feel for him because Michael Peterson is such a tragic and pathetic soul, and inside his cruel brutal exterior we see hints at a softer side locked away, just as he is.

Hardy's performance is one to marvel, full of such confidence and conviction it outweighs any of Bronson's misgivings. Nicolas Winding Refn is filmmaker who holds as much fearless creativity as he does talent, a gift that can sometimes deliver mixed results though always interesting ones. His many brave and drastic decisions don't always work here but can be forgiven as he's created a uniquely baffling film that could easily have been a run of the mill biographical piece if it weren't for his daring. Bronson is often criticised for not being willing to delve into Peterson's character, this isn't the film's aim, this isn't a study of one man per-se but rather about masculinity in existential crux, using Peterson as an essential jumping-off point. Bronson uses his violence as his artistic means for expression in a world he cannot understand or control,  and as a piece of art this film deserves to be held up in high regard.

For fans of: A Clockwork Orange (1971), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), Chopper (2000)