Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2008 film, Bronson, is pretty badass. Based on the life of “Britain’s most violent inmate,” it fits nicely alongside movies like Chopper (the comparison is unavoidable) in the realm of fictionalized-character-studies-of-real-life-psychopaths-in-prison.
Tom Hardy plays Michael Peterson, a young Brit with a lifelong mean streak, who, unhappy with his own name, adopts the moniker of action god Charles Bronson as a more appropriate bare-knuckle boxing name. We see his propensity for violence immediately, as he pounds on other children at school, steals from the till at his first job, and generally raises all sorts of hell. When he knocks over a post office for a sad handful of wrinkled bills, he is sentenced to seven years in prison.
It is in prison that Charlie sets out to make his name. He wants to be famous, but he can’t sing, and can’t act, so he turns to his only real talent, fighting, to cement his celebrity. His continual violent outbursts, all of which are aimed at the prison staff (with one exception that we’ll get to later), earn him a lot of alone time in solitary confinement. Much to Charlie’s chagrin, he is transferred from prison to prison, 120 total, just as he begins to carve out his reputation in each one.
At one point the hacks lead him, shackled, beaten, and bruised, down the hallway of a cellblock while other cons cheer him on. Their applause swells and morphs into the enthusiastic applause of a black-tie crowd in a London theater.
Charlie is fueled by his quest for fame, or infamy, both real and imagined. In cut scenes he appears on stage, pandering to a highbrow audience, and hamming up his violent past for their amusement. They eat up is every word, and give him what he craves, attention. For a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, this notoriety is heaven.
The movie even plays with the conventions of reality shows, which are also stocked with limelight seekers with questionable moralities. Segments are narrated by Charlie, who looks like the bastard child of Salvador Dali and an old-timey circus strongman, in the style of reality TV confessionals, where he is alone, in the present, talking directly to the camera/audience, commenting on things that have already happened as if they are real time events.
Eventually, he winds up heavily medicated in a mental institution (the drug dulled scene where the inmates dance to the Pet Shop Boys is one of the most memorable in the film), where he attempts to strangle a child molester with a necktie (the only instance in the movie where his violence is focused on someone not in a position of authority).
Because the system is unable to deal with him, and the cost of constantly shuffling and reshuffling him, he is ultimately pronounced cured, and released into the public, only to wind up behind bars again after 69 days. Once back inside he continues his violent tendencies, and he also begins a trend of taking hostages for no other reason than to stave off boredom and provoke violent encounters with the prison guards. Out of 34 total years in prison, Charlie has spent 30 of them in solitary confinement.
For the most part, Hardy’s performance is right on. You have to give him props for the sheer number of naked fight scenes he has. In one of these scenes he forces a kidnapped guard to smear him with butter before the other screws come in and deliver the savage beating that he so wants from them. But there are times when he is in danger of becoming overly hammy. These moments are exclusive to the scenes where Charlie appears in front of his imagined public. I get it, I do, he is on stage, before an adoring, enraptured audience, finally getting what he so desperately yearns for, and loving every last second of it. However, the theatricality of these scenes feels forced and tries too hard to be artistic, which contrasts sharply with the starkness and desperation of the rest of the film, and not in a way that adds to the story, but in a way that detracts from it. In reality this is probably more a problem with the script than with Hardy himself, but he’s going to take the fall for it here.
Refn (or is it Winding Refn? I’m not sure) makes good use of the broken down, decaying environs of 1970’s and 1980’s British prisons, both visually and thematically. In most cases you look at the state of the cells and can’t help but be horrified at the conditions. If this were a zoo or an animal shelter you wouldn’t waste a moment in filing an official complaint with the proper authorities. The cells are corroded and cramped, and there are multiple times when Charlie is locked in a wire mesh cage, naked, without enough room to even sit down. In contrast to these cells, the ward at the mental hospital is almost infinite in its vastness. Instead of being physically constrained here, Charlie is restricted by chemical means, so drugged up that all he can do is sit and drool and shuffle around the bleak room like a zombie.
Like the real life Mark “Chopper” Read, the real Charles Bronson (well, this particular Charles Bronson anyway) has written a number of books, including one about working out in confined spaces, and become a celebrity in his homeland. (Though as of this writing Charlie doesn’t have a hip-hop album, which “Chopper” does. And, not to play favorites, but Chopper is a slightly better movie than Bronson.) In the end he may have been beaten, drugged, and brutalized in nearly every capacity, for decades on end, but he does realize his ultimate goal, fame. Is there any indicator of fame greater than having a movie based on your life?