I almost skipped the LA Film Festival screening of Bronson, because two things most certainly don't go together: my squeamish aversion to on-screen violence, and the good odds that Bronson -- a fictionalized biopic of Britain's "most violent prisoner," a man named Michael Peterson known better by his self-proclaimed nickname, Charlie Bronson -- would have copious amounts of bashing and bloodletting. Thankfully, I decided to give it a go... and I was rewarded with one of the most perfectly stylized, humorous, thought-provoking films of the year.
Bronson is about a monster in human clothing who happens to be a real person; he's a sociopath, a masochist, and many other things that don't sit well with society and all of its pesky rules. And he's fascinating to watch, whether he's dreaming of glory, planning a violent outburst, stripped down naked for battle, or awkwardly sipping a fruity cocktail during his short time on the outside.
Bronson, who strikes a memorable figure with his signature look -- shaved head, full, groomed moustache, wild eyes -- is played by actor Tom Hardy, who I've never seen before but who left an indelible impression. His performance will be described as a tour de force, bravura, commanding... given the film's flair for the theatrical, Hardy's Peterson/Bronson is alternately menacing, charming, strangely polite, angry, calm, and pumped full of adrenaline and ready to burst, fists-first into the nearest man's head.
According to the film, Peterson/Bronson is Britain's most violent prisoner, and has been locked up for 30+ years, most of which have been spent in solitary confinement. Director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy) portrays Bronson up as a wild animal who yearns perversely for a cage, if only to bash his head against the walls over and over again.
Between flashbacks to his time in and out of prison, Bronson appears in fantasy sequences, a carnival barker narrating his own story to a captive audience in a theater; fame and attention are what he apparently seeks in life, after all, not only in his actions but in the telling of them.
Is Bronson, like so many murderous killer-types in the movies and TV, just a lost soul in search of a creative channel? A development involving Bronson's emerging artistic talents and the possibility that they could lead to a post-prison career and fame -- though that of a lowly artist, instead of a prison champion and all-around bad ass -- leads to one of many surprisingly hilarious turns, as Refn at first seems to suggest that his screwy protagonist might be explained or even redeemed, somehow, as you might expect such a film to lead. But no; Bronson can't get off so easily, and neither can we.
Refn uses many surprising and effective flourishes, including slow motion fisticuffs, brutal beatdowns set to Wagnerian opera, quiet scenes pregnant with the threat of violence, Bronson's direct address and long, uncomfortable stares into the camera... even Refn's '80s period details are not your usual bubblegum '80s - they're the '80s as fueled by Pet Shop Boys songs and the pseudo-retro sounds of death disco group Glass Candy, or the neon blue of underground fight clubs. (Amusingly, Bronson remains the same age through the '70s, '80s, and beyond.)
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Bronson is an impressive marriage of character, style, and storytelling, with more than a few flashes of violence and downright anti-social behavior. But it's the best time this squeamish girl has had at the movies all year. Keep an eye out for it when it comes to a theater near you. (Bronson is already released in the UK and slated for a US debut this October.)