Bronson is not the story of Charles Bronson, the tough guy actor who starred in Death Wish and who died in 2003. No, Bronson is a souped-up portrait of a man who acquired the reputation of being the most violent prisoner in Great Britain.
Michael Peterson, the man in question, was given the name Charles Bronson while working as a bare-knuckle fighter in British clubs and back alleys. But Bronson isn't known for his employment record. He's known, the movie informs us, for having spent 34 years in the slammer; 30 of them in solitary confinement.
If Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's film has it right -- and it feels as if it does -- Bronson's proclivities go beyond those of ordinary criminals. He's depicted as an uncontrollable force of nature, a man who takes his violence seriously.
Refn seems to regard Bronson as a theatrical presence in a mundane world; perhaps that's why he interrupts the film with sequences in which Bronson appears on a stage, addressing an audience. For his part, Bronson tells us he always wanted to be famous. The real Bronson has written books and shown works of art, but on screen, he remains a kind of unredeemed savage. You get the feeling that if you met him, you'd be afraid. Very afraid.
Sometimes, an actor will do things that go well beyond easy comprehension. In playing Bronson, actor Tom Hardy gives just such a tour de force performance: It's a feat of extreme physicality and unremitting will. As portrayed by Hardy, Bronson seems resistant to any kind of help. This is a man whose DNA seems coded for anti-authoritarianism.
To support his actor, Refn puts other skills on display. Cinematographer -- Larry Smith -- knows how to compose an interesting shot, and accepts Refn's challenge of mixing the brutal naturalism of prison scenes and the stagey artifice of theater scenes that sometimes have Bronson talking directly to the camera; i.e., to us. He also uses music that often goes against the grain of his images -- from Verdi to Wagner to Puccini and the Pet Shop Boys.
Bronson's life plays out in vivid bursts. At one point, he returns to the civilian population, having served a stint in an institution for the criminally insane. He quickly falls in love with a woman (Juliete Oldfield) who's engaged to someone else. He begins his fighting career.
But Bronson soon returns home; i.e., he's back in jail. Bronson seems poised for redemption -- and the movie seems headed for cliche -- when an art teacher (James Lance) notices his talent. Even the justly skeptical warden -- a cerebral Jonathan Phillips -- begins to buy into the idea that Bronson may have the right stuff for reclamation. But Bronson remains true to his idea of himself, and the movie retains its integrity. Here's a man who never met an opportunity he wouldn't willfully screw up.
Bronson isn't for everyone. It's not for those who require psychological explanations of behavior. It's not for the squeamish. And at times, the picture comes on like a flurry of Bronson's punches. Bam! A little biographical information. Bop! Some prison mayhem. Bam again! Bronson on stage trying to turn himself into a form of primal entertainment.
However Bronson ultimately defines itself, it's anything but dull. Refn makes the most of Hardy's performance. And when the movie's finally done, you may feel as if you've been in the ring with a heavyweight who has gotten the best of you. I'm not entirely sure what you'll learn from the experience, but you won't soon forget it.
Bronson opens in Denver on Oct. 30.