Monday, October 12, 2009



I had never heard of director Nicolas Winding Refn, but I am guessing he is a big Kubrick fan. I am thinking HUGE because his movie BRONSON is obviously someone else’s take on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. The film hits as hard as CLOCKWORK too; it even has its own strange attempts at rehabilitation. The only film that I can think of in recent history that secures the levels of viewer-abuse that BRONSON locks is CHOPPER starring a then-unknown Eric Bana. Like BRONSON, CHOPPER is a wretched meditation on the mind of a criminal. There should be no surprise that both of these movies leave the viewer shell-shocked and questioning the purpose of human existence. BRONSON is a mean, homoerotic homage to the classic prison and mental institution films of the 70s and 80s.

BRONSON breaks the fourth wall from the start and continues doing so throughout. Mickey Peterson (Tom Hardy – Handsome Bob in ROCKNROLLA) is onstage telling his life story to a packed theater audience. He is looking directly at the camera though, and his shtick is actually rather funny at times. This absurdist presentation (complete with varying uses of white and black face-paint) keeps the viewer slightly off-kilter and prepped for the actual story which is as volatile as a powder keg with thirty lit fuses.

Mickey Peterson is Britain’s most famous criminal. He is a brawler, he backs down to no one, and his scarred body shows it. His life is a complete twisted-metal, smoking wreckage. BRONSON the movie painfully tries to examine and evaluate this man who fights with his fists against incredible odds ALL THE TIME. With his shaved head and handlebar moustache, Mickey is as psychotic as Woody Harrelson in NATURAL BORN KILLERS. The skinhead Nazi bassline is a part of Mickey’s swansong that is only hinted at in one scene when Mickey uses his own blood to make a swastika on his cement prison wall.

There is no explanation for why Mickey is such a brooding brute. While lovingly referencing SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, the camera keeps to angles that make actor Tom Hardy seem impossibly huge. Prison is about stripping everything away from a man and having him face his mistakes. Mickey furthers this concept by stripping his clothes off and greasing his naked flesh for unfair bouts with prison guards. This Mickey Peterson character is too big to contain. The camera actually seems to cower from him at times, almost as if Tom Hardy might have snapped and actually become Mickey while the film was being made.

When Mickey is moved to a mental institution, he is pumped full of drugs, so much so that all he can do is hoarsely squeak and drool. In an analogue for Mickey’s whiteface performance, a fellow inmate defecates in his own hand and wipes the filth on his face. Mickey is equally insane. All he wants to do is go back to jail. He even kills another inmate to get sent back, but he is such a problem that he is force-deemed “sane” so that the institution can be rid of him.

Mickey is released back into society for 69 days. He is a twitching shell of a man who makes his spare cash participating in bare-knuckle brawls. Mickey chooses to call himself Charlie Bronson, because the name is badass and “nobody gives a toss about Charlton Heston.”

His connection to the brawling underworld comes from his morally vacant Uncle Jack (Hugh Ross) who lives in a house brimming with transvestites, party girls, and the inexplicable. That being said, I have to cite that the homoerotic vibes that this film throws out are heavy-handed. Too many times to count, the camera lusts after Bronson’s muscular form. Tom Hardy goes all the way with his role as Bronson. His uncircumcised penis is on display in a slow motion fight in ways that Doctor Manhattan’s blue member couldn’t have been in THE WATCHMEN.

Bronson’s time of freedom is cut short in a strangely sweet passage where he steals an engagement ring for a harlot he loves in a vicious unarmed jewelry store heist. The last act of this film is Bronson going head to head with the warden at his new prison. The warden has seen swollen anarchists like Bronson before and can’t be bothered to refer to Bronson as much more than “ridiculous” and “pitiful.”

Bronson takes up drawing as therapy. When Bronson’s art teacher tells him to “find that piece of you that doesn’t belong here” in his drawings, it seems like there might be hope for him. There is no hope though, and this film beats the viewer about the head with this fact rather gleefully in the last act.

BRONSON presents the British prison system and all that is wrong with it. It also presents a man who really needs to fit into the prison system but can’t because he is a complete misfit. This film becomes a harrowing experience as its hopelessness is presented ALL IN CAPS for almost two hours. Like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, BRONSON is a well-made but emotionally draining film about a societal misfit that is excruciating to watch. Neither film is one that I need to go back to anytime soon.