Star Rating 3 out of 5 stars
I decided to continue exploring Nicolas Winding Refn’s work by watching one of his earlier films, Bronson, which is currently available on Netflix. As a filmmaker I’ve found Winding Refn’s work to be an interesting conundrum. Regardless of the story of place his stylistic choices typically include bass-heavy electronic music, and bright vibrant, contrasty colors. This style works for films like The Neon Demon and Drive because the worlds Winding Refn has built in these films are intertwined with his own unique style. For a film like Bronson, however, it is an interesting element that feels unique to Winding Refn, but it also feels out of place in this biopic.
Bronson tells the story of Charles Bronson a.k.a. Michael Peterson a.k.a. Charles Salvador (as he calls himself now), Britains most violent criminal. Bronson (played by Tom Hardy) is sent to prison in 1974 for robbery and sentenced to 7 years. During his time in prison Bronson is moved from prison to prison for fighting with the other inmates and is eventually moved to a psychiatric hospital because of his violent behaviors. He is eventually let go from prison where he lives with a relative for a short period of time before going back to prison after 69 days, again for robbery. This time he is sentenced to life in prison, mostly because of how violent he is. It is during this second stint in prison where Bronson assumes his new identity as Charles Bronson (instead of Michael Peterson) and continues his life of prison fighting and eventually taking up an art hobby.
The best part about this film is watching Tom Hardy give perhaps one of the best performances of his career. Hardy manages to fully immerse himself in being Charles Bronson. The film is all narrated by Bronson, sometimes while facing the camera in a pseudo-confession style video, and sometimes while Bronson is on stage telling his story to an audience in a theater in a vaudeville type show. The rest consists of scenes in which the events play out like a normal film. With each style of storytelling the film invokes, Hardy adapts the Bronson persona to the environment. The confession style storytelling feels intimate and Bronson feels more vulnerable and nostalgic about his story. The vaudeville storytelling is over the top, with Hardy changing make-up to look more clown like with each scene change. All of the vaudeville scenes play with Bronson’s belief that he was supposed to be famous, and his love of being the center of attention. His character is happiest in the film when people are giving him attention.
Because of the choice in narrative style the film adopts, all of the dramatizes scenes take on a non-linear structure, at least for the first half of the film. While this choice in story structure helps to bring the audience up to speed on the life of the main character, it fails to create any sort of emotional connection to the character. We know from the beginning that his motivation for anything is to be famous, but this doesn’t give any room for his failures or show any of his weaknesses. Bronson is painting as a character who can only succeed, even if he is in prison. Plus after the third or fourth scene of Bronson fighting one of the other inmates, the rest of the film blurs together. There is very little about this story that makes it interesting. It is only toward the end of the film that Bronson discovers art and takes it up as a hobby and finds more notoriety from his art than his constant prison fighting.
This could just be me, but I ultimately found this film to be boring compared to the other films from Nicolas Winding Refn I’ve seen. There was nothing to make Bronson a relatable character, and there weren’t very many characters in the film apart from Bronson to provide that emotional connection to the story. A majority of the films scenes consisted of Bronson fighting other people, and while these scenes could have been exciting, the buildup to the scenes was more interesting than the actual fights themselves. Tom Hardy is always enjoyable in any role he takes on, and Bronson is no exception. If you can look past the fact that very little actually happens in this film, you’ll find that Tom Hardy’s charismatic performance is what carries the film.