- Directed and written by Nicolas Winding Refn
- Starring Tom Hardy
- Classification: 14A
Dubbed "Britain's most violent prisoner," Charles Bronson - born Michael Peterson - has spent 34 of his 56 years in jail, most of them at his current address in solitary confinement. He has also published 11 books, won a like number of awards for his painting and drawing, and possesses a lethally fit body capable of "regularly performing 2,500 pushups a day." That's quite the résumé and, all things considered, should make for quite a movie. But it doesn't. Instead, Bronson is one of those "based on a true story" dramatizations where the theatrically staged drama only gets in the way of the more interesting truth.
Blame that on writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, who keeps imposing himself on the subject, yet seems unsure what to make either of Peterson or his narrative. Is this a tale of innate violence? Or obsessive celebrity? Or frustrated artistry? All these themes pop up, yet only superficially and, as they do, the scary yet intriguing figure at the centre goes missing in the mayhem. Consequently, we never really learn much about a guy who interests us but who remains a frustrating cipher. We do, however, learn more than we care to know about Refn's operatic style.
That style begins, continues and ends with the same recurring sequence: The skin-headed, ultra-muscled Peterson naked in a cell and single-handedly fighting a truncheon-wielding crowd of prison guards. Getting in his licks while getting the bejabbers beaten out of him, he appears to be enjoying himself immensely. To encourage us to do the same, Refn swipes a chord from A Clockwork Orange and choreographs the fisticuffs to a symphonic score. Yes, the violence is aestheticized and made lyrical, apparently because that's how the pugilist sees it - as performance art. His body is his canvas, and blood his palette. But why?
Well, a token flashback to the seventies reveals little about his wayward youth, beyond the fact that he routinely pounded out teachers, then got convicted of armed robbery and sent behind bars. There, he took an instant liking to the place. "Prison was where I could sharpen my skills, own my tools," says Peterson to the camera. He often addresses us directly; sometimes, he's also seen in a small theatre addressing an actual audience, literally putting the performance into his art. The picture is nothing if not elaborately staged, yet the effect is just so stagy - all show and no tell.
What keeps us watching is Tom Hardy's tour de force in the title role. Physically buffed and brutal, verbally blunt and caustic, he makes menace mesmerizing, the interior rage pouring out to seek its violent expression. In Hardy's bruised hands, Peterson is a natural born fighter in constant search of a ring. No wonder he escapes into prison, where the vicious atmosphere perfectly suits his needs. No wonder too that the authorities are "at a loss" about how to deal with him - after all, every other inmate's punishment is his reward.
But ultimately, the director (who showcased his own violent obsessions in the Pusher trilogy) undermines his lead actor by depriving him of the complexity that presumably led the real-life Peterson to write his poetry and produce his drawings. Perhaps Refn is afraid of the cliché: Certainly, from Birdman of Alcatraz onward, the screen has seen its trite share of the hardened-con-as-sensitive-artist prototype. But he errs at the opposite extreme, reducing Michael Peterson exclusively to Charles Bronson, to his assumed street name. Somewhere in that persona lurks a person, yet he stays elusive here.
That's because the filmmaker is too busy stripping him down and posing him in that repeated tableau, naked and taking eager swings against unyielding authority, the star player revelling in his blood-sport. Again and again, that's the frame, that's the canvas, that's the art. Too bad the revealed artist is Refn, and not the far more compelling figure we hoped to see.