Bronson is a biopic of sorts, but it depicts such a terrible, terrifying world of anger and violence that you want to pretend something like this could never really exist.
The movie is based on the life of Charles Bronson (born Michael Gordon Peterson), who has been in and out of Britain’s prison system since the early 1970s and has earned the tabloid reputation as the country’s most violent prisoner. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, whose films are obsessive explorations of male savagery, Bronson depicts its title character as a caged animal who somehow gains more power from its cages. We first see Bronson (Tom Hardy) naked and pacing, bathed in a red light, like a snarling tiger at a sketchy traveling circus. When the doors open – look out. The poor prison guards are helpless.
Bronson follows this dangerous creature from prison cell to prison cell, from solitary confinement to mental institution, as the government tries to figure out what to do with him. Solitary only seems to strengthen him. Even under heavy sedation at a prison for the criminally insane, he manages to murder a fellow inmate. Guards – and in one excruciating scene a prison art teacher – are regularly taken hostage. At one point, the exasperated decision is made to simply set Bronson free.
The role of Bronson was a breakout one for Hardy. It’s a tour de force performance, made up of theatrical moments (including fantasy sequences of Bronson performing a one-man show before an adoring audience) and smaller touches. Hardy manages a threatening stare unlike any I’ve ever seen. He murders with his eyes while simultaneously communicating disinterest. It’s a vacantly lethal expression, and a horrifying one.
Neither Hardy nor Refn try to explain Bronson’s behavior. Similarly, though you could say the movie is a condemnation of what prison can do to a man, it isn’t all that interested in social justice. Bronson is more of an anthropological study in human viciousness, like a nature film done by Stanley Kubrick. Its inexplicable violence is mesmerizing and awful, all the more so because it’s real.