The more I look back at the works of Danish film director (and as a friend likes to describe him, hipster slug) Nicolas Winding Refn, two things become more and more apparent. The first is that he’s probably one of the most gifted directors working today. The second is that he’s completely fucking insane. But then those things to tend to go hand in hand, don’t they?
His 2008 film Bronson is evidence of both these things, perhaps even more so than his recent opus Drive. Yes, this is going where you think it’s going. I’m fairly certain I like Bronson more than Drive. Now, I want you to appreciate what it takes to say that something’s better than Drive in the world of internet movie criticism, I fully expect I’ll be found in a ditch with my head cut off the day after this goes up.
So what’s it about? Well, it’s a Refn movie, so short version it’s about a socially awkward man with a preternatural skill for inflicting massive bodily harm on anyone who gets within striking distance, a skill which he seems incredibly keen to show off. Normally I’d make some joke about wish fulfillment here, but this time it’s based on a true story.
Our protagonist is Charles Bronson, not the movie star, but still a man known for his rockin’ mustache and violent tendencies. Bronson, nee Michael Peterson, got thrown in the slammer at the tender age of 19 and more or less stayed there for the rest of his days (including over 30 years in solitary), garnering a reputation for being Britain’s most violent prisoner for his tendency, again as a friend of mine says, to “fucking ROCK people”. That is, of course, until he was briefly released and enjoyed a brief bare knuckle boxing career under the name Charlie Bronson, which became his legal name thereafter.
Bronson is played by a pre-Dark Knight Rises Tom Hardy, and the first thing you’ll probably say upon finishing the movie is “How in God’s name do you go from THAT to strutting around spouting off horrible dialogue in a bad German accent that more often than not just makes you sound like evil Henry Kissinger??”. Hardy’s performance in this one is nothing short of legendary, encompassing insanity, bravado, theatricality and soul-crushing sorrow. At times it feels like he’s basically playing a Batman villain, making his horrendous performance in DKR all the more of a letdown. So congratulations, Bronson, you’ve given me another reason to hate Dark Knight Rises.
Direction wise, all of Refn’s usual earmarks are there, the main character who caves peoples’ foreheads in just as soon as he says “Hello”, the healthy infusion of European Techno, but it does still feel like a stylistic departure for him. The comparison everyone’s making, right down the blurb on the DVD cover, is Stanley Kubrick. Specifically, A Clockwork Orange, and I can’t say it’s a bad comparison. We got slow motion beatdowns set to classical music, narration, and we see a lot of our protagonist’s bits and pieces. In tone, there’s definitely a dash of Kubrick, but that doesn’t mean it’s derivative.
So that narration I mentioned? Sometimes it’s your basic voice over, but this is Nicolas Winding Refn we’re talking about, he doesn’t do shit the way you’d expect. Other times we just get Hardy as Bronson staring into the camera like he just found it doing something unseemly with his mother, but the most interesting and memorable segments are the ones where Bronson is delivering his narration on stage to an audience, usually sporting black and white clown makeup or in one scene, and I swear I’m not making this up, the makeup David Bowie had on the cover of Aladdin Sane. And he sings. And it’s kind of amazing.
What Bronson is ultimately about, more than violence and quirky direction, is alter egos. It’s about the line that divides Michael Peterson the man and Charlie Bronson the legend. When the movie starts that kooky narration I mentioned is in full swing and we’re having a grand old time. But as things go along something happens. That line the movie draws between the normal, if prone to extreme violence, Michael and the batshit loony Bronson begins to grow more vague. The funny narrations and stage scenes grow sparse, and what used to be an amusing inner voice becomes the only voice, and it’s less amusing than it is frightening. In this sense, the movie also pulls a nasty trick on us, forcing us to like and even root for old kooky old Charlie B. and then likewise forcing us to watch as he walks down the lonely road to utter madness, and the extremely violent jester that so amused us before becomes something far more dangerous and sinister.
If, like most film nerds at the moment, you’re bowing down before the alter of Refn, Bronson should be at the top of your ‘to watch’ list. It is definitely a stylistic departure, a bit more on the quirky side than his usual schtick of moodiness and self reflection for part of it, but it still absolutely lives up to the sizable reputation he’s garnered over the last few years. Plus if you’ve ever wanted to see a Batman villain’s dong here’s your movie.