Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bronson (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2008)

That's not Charles Bronson the star of the Death Wish films, as you can see. This movie really has nothing to do with him, except that it's subject changed his name to Charles Bronson in the midst of a life which has seen him dubbed England's most violent criminal.

Bronson is a film about kicking ass. That is to say the character is interested in nothing other than fighting with prison guards. Seriously, that's it. The film itself is interested in nothing other than kicking ass in the level of quality with which it's made and the way in which it presents this extreme character. Both succeed.

Bronson is the story of a man born Micheal Peterson, who at nineteen commits an armed robbery and is sentenced to seven years in prison. As of the release of the film, he'd spent 34 years in prison, 30 of which were spent in solitary confinement. According to the film, he's never actually killed anyone. He attempted to kill a fellow inmate in an asylum though, because he wanted to get back to prison, where he could fight guards. When his victim lives, he's remanded to an asylum for the criminally insane, where he proceeds to start a prison riot. The film focuses on this man, his actions and  his drive for recognition, which is to say, he states at the beginning of the film, "I've always wanted to be famous" and that's about all the explanation you're going to get for why this guy is as completely set on fighting everything, but especially prison guards.

Because Bronson himself is the story, there isn't a very straightforward narrative here. It's also being told to us from his perspective, so to say the narrator is somewhat unreliable, is an understatement. But, there's no blame here, no self pity, none of it. Bronson is recalling these incidents or this tale, as if he would have changed none of it.  The only time it seems he's asking for or trying to get any pity or empathy from the audience is the point in the film in which he's locked in an asylum, being heavily sedated constantly, and unable to be in prison, fighting with guards, as he'd like to be. And in a way, you do pity him. Seeing this guy being reduced to a drooling pile of goo is what I imagine it would have been like to see Churchill rendered mute. Churchill had a gift for words, not only speeches, but in the many other phrases and exchanges which have become part of legend and folk lore. In the film, Bronson seems in the same way to have been made specifically with fighting prison guards in mind.

And that's part of what makes this film interesting. It's suggesting or Bronson was suggesting in writing the book it was based on, that he is a kind of artist whose canvass is violence and publicity. The way he and the film are portrayed, it seems kind of true. And if you can consider it, a feature length, well funded motion picture has been made about the man dubbed England's most violent prisoner, before his death. There does seem to be a certain PT Barnum sense of publicity to this guy.

Being treated to performances like the one Tom Hardy put in portraying Bronson is an extremely rare experience. Hardy's portrayal creates a character who is thoroughly charismatic, and potently disturbing. There's some strange combination here which bespeaks Woody Harrelson's Mickey Knox, Robert Deniro's Travis Bickle, Eric Bana's Mark "Chopper" Read, Denzell Washington's Alonzo Harris and Heath Ledger's Joker. Bronson is a madman, an anti-social maniac anyone in their right mind would be terrified of face to face, but in so many places during the film, you find yourself rooting for him, and hoping that he either gets the nothing he wants or straightens up enough to have some kind of life and do something with the boundless energy and charisma we see. There have been whispers of Tom Hardy playing "Max" in the next Mad Max film, and now I understand why. Though I'm not sure he'll ever come across a part this good again, Hardy is an amazingly talented young actor. Reams of hyperbole have been heaped on this performance since the films release, and in one of those rare cases, it's almost not enough.

Technically, it's a spectacular film. I've read and heard some other reviews and opinions about the film which fault it for being a little too stylistic, but given the subject matter, specifically Bronson himself, that seems to be exactly what it should be. There seems to be a growing tide of film loving and critical folks who find some fault with the kind of stylistic visual tone this film has, which I don't completely understand. If thematically, contextually, and so on, it gets in the way of the story or it overwhelms the characters, that's a problem. But, just because it's become something we're seeing in films more often than we did in the past, doesn't mean it's time to throw on your hipster ascot and make with the hate. It works here, to good effect, in part because the film is coming to you or being told through Bronson's perspective, and that would be an extremely stylized perspective. Scenes of Bronson on a stage, narrating events, while wearing old time vaudevillian harlequin make up, to the roar of a loving crowd, make perfect sense in the context of this character, because he is a completely bug nuts, out of his mind, showman. I could have watched those scenes alone for a long time. Whether or not you agree with director Nicholas Winding Refn's choice to make the films as visually stylistic as it is, you can't say it isn't done well. The regular shifting from deep, strong, vibrant colors, to the institutional blues, greens and grays works well, especially because there's enough texture to every shot that even bathed those institutional colors each composition looks interesting. In the short period of the film covering the 69 days (the point at which he changed his name to Charles "Charlie" Bronson, in order to sound tougher in the underground bare knuckle fighting circuit) Bronson was at one point free from prison, the art direction and costuming are excellent, providing a real sense of time and place. Technically, it's a beautiful film.

Bronson is an extremely entertaining film. It belongs right along side Natural Born Killers, Chopper, and in a kind of strange reversed sense, Fight Club. It's subversive, in an intelligently belligerent way that would have only been entertaining for a short period of time, had it's star and resulting main character not been so magnetic and charismatic you can't take your eyes off him for a second. The lines it draws between criminal and celebrity in keeping with the themes of Natural Born Killers and Chopper. The ideas about identity, violence and masculinity follow very much in line with the ideas in Fight Club, in a strange sort of way. One thing I do have to warn perspective viewers about (because we're weird about this stuff here), there is a lot of male nudity in the film. Bronson doesn't just enjoy fighting guards, he gets bare ass naked to do it, so they can't grab his clothes, and often smothers himself in paint or whatever else he can to approximate grease. If you can't see anything but cock when there is an adult male on film, you need to grow up, and you need to skip this film.  I enjoyed Bronson thoroughly, and I'm going to be going back to check out the films I think are it's thematic and characteristic brethren again specifically because of it.

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