There are no real reasons/motives given to why prisoner Charles Bronson is so ridiculously violent in Nicolas Winding Refn’s character-driven drama — Bronson’s ambition in life, quite simply, is “to become famous” and that’s it. It’s the way his story is told — theatrically, in front of an audience of adoring fans, and via the character’s narration — though, that blurs the line between art and exploitation, making this a really gripping (and bloody trippy) experience, overall.
Be it that Charles Bronson is actually a real person (he was born Michael Gordon Peterson, and is often referred to as the “most notorious prisoner in Britain”), perhaps the easiest thing the filmmakers could’ve done was make a biopic about the man who has spent the majority of his life in solitary confinement.
But Bronson is no ordinary dramatization or prison drama; it’s actually a very well made film. Depicting the simple life of an absolute lunatic (played by Tom Hardy), whose only real desire is to kick the fuck out of as many people as he can, the film showcases the character’s intensified rage from start to finish, but does so with more than a hint of creativity.
Most notably, Bronson’s treatment in prison forces us to look at failing rehabilitation system. We’re not meant to feel sorry for the character (Christ, from witnessing some of the things he does, it’s obvious he out to warrant a reaction) but the theatricality of it all is undoubtedly disturbing and thought-provocative, having a lasting effect.
There’s a particularly memorable scene that follows on from Bronson being certified insane. The character is shown sedated so much that he is unable to speak, sitting there in his own drool and vomit, whilst a fellow inmate tells him about his desires to rape a nine-year-old girl. Bronson tries to react but can’t physically move, and soon after a disco breaks out to the Pet Shop Boys track ‘It’s a Sin’, which sees all the patients up and dancing.
Bronson is a character who’s not particularly interested in relationships or people but feels the need to react to them, and when he can’t he just withers away. Refn reinvents him as a showman for the screen, allowing Hardy in his role to share his experiences with an adoring crowd, underneath a thick layer of white face-paint, in-between prison scenes. This method of storytelling, accompanied by Charlie’s narration of the real world/his “normal” upbringing and the world that Charlie wants us to see him in, presents us with a real mix of dark humour and violence.
Refn’s film may exhibit Bronson’s life in an “arty” way, but it makes no apologies for the man’s behaviour. Neither does Hardy, who’s fantastic as Bronson, and not just in physical stature, but in his embodiment of the character, capturing the menace, humour and self-doubt of a man who has spent most of his years in prison. Bronson is not some soppy appeal for a wrongly-convicted man who we should all campaign for a release; the message about Bronson here is pretty clear: He’s a hard bastard, plain and simple.