Bronsonrecommended viewing

Rage against the whatever
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2008
Director: 
Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: 
Tom Hardy, Matt King, Kelly Adams, James Lance
The Setup: 
Character piece examines the showmanship and attitudes of Britain’s most violent prisoner.
Discussion: 

I have maintained a distant interest in Charles Bronson, known as Britain’s most violent prisoner, for the simple reason that he’s a big bald muscleman with a big mustache. He has eleven books in Britain of poetry and artwork, and now this character study movie.

The movie opens with Bronson on a stage, giving a one-man show in his mind to an appreciative audience. The film often returns to this environment, often with Bronson wearing white mime makeup. Among the first things Bronson tells us is that all his life he wanted to be famous. We see him naked, dancing/boxing around his cell, which he likens to a luxurious hotel room. He says he loves it there, and finally felt at home. We see him fight the guards as they come in to take him out. He seems to be very capable of taking on four of five men at a time.

We get very little on his childhood: He was born Michael Peterson and got in fights from a young age. His mother slams the door in the face of the police officer who drags him home after some infraction—she doesn’t want to hear it. We see Bronson steal money from the register of the butcher shop where he works, give it to a woman he likes, and the next thing we know he’s married to her and has a child. We see his hold a sawed-off shotgun from his crotch like a cock, and next thing we know he has robbed a post office for about 45 pounds. He gets seven years for that crime and goes to prison, where he apparently causes fights and disruption wherever he can, and has soon earned the title of “Britain’s most violent prisoner.” This whole section, which lasts not more than five minutes, is the only information we’ll get on Bronson’s past.

Soon Bronson is declared insane and sent to a mental institution. This he does not like one bit. This is not the luxurious hotel suite he saw himself as master of, and after an attack or two they keep him drugged up, lying slack and drooling. There’s a wonderfully bizarre sequence in here as all the mental patients dance to Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin.” Eventually Bronson strangles and attempts to kill—despite still being drugged?—a guy who had earlier suggested that they co-rape a 9-year-old. At this point, the system having no idea what to do with him, he is declared sane and released. A little research informs us that this release never happened.

SPOILERS > > > He goes to stay with his Uncle Jack, who has not been seen or mentioned up until now. Bronson walks with an exaggerated cartoon-like gait, like Popeye. Uncle Jack seems to run a house where early drag queens can feel free to express themselves, accompanied by various women of disputable virtue. Soon he starts engaging in illegal boxing, and his manager suggests that he change his name, which is when he chooses Charles Bronson. The real Bronson claims this never happened and that his name is not a reference to the star of Death Wish. The boxing matches are accompanied by 80s synth music, and with them happening in slow motion, occasionally accompanied by images of snarling dogs in slow motion, begins to have the sense and energy of a music video. Bronson also likes this waify woman who lives at the house, who sits on his lap and seduces him. There’s a great comic scene where Bronson works up the emotion to say “I love you,” to her, then she absently flips a magazine page and finally responds: “What?” She tells him—now—that she’s in love with someone named Brian, who’s “got a motorbike.” Bronson robs a jewelry store to get a ring for her, and is soon arrested and thrown back in jail.

In the final sequence, Bronson is back and jail and starts doing art. His prison art teacher is stereotypically gay, seems to have more than a little crush on Bronson, and is clearly starting to believe that he and Bronson share an understanding, and that Bronson appreciates him and wouldn’t hurt him. Then Bronson takes him hostage, tying him to a pole, painting his face and forcing him to hold an apple in his mouth. We see a tear run down his terrified face. Bronson strips nude and paints his entire body black. He announces that the guards can come in, and then follows a slow-motion brawl as they try to contain his struggling nude body. The film ends with him still in prison, now in a tiny cage that wouldn’t allow him to take a step in any direction, or to lie down.
< < < SPOILERS END

It’s very good, though it’s hard to get an exact fix on why. There is little to no plot, and it should not be looked to for historical accuracy. It’s a character piece about this prisoner that tries to capture his essence and explore what he means, rather than faithfully express the events of his life. If you know that going in, one can be prepared for the story and plot to be thin.

The film offers no explanation for Bronson’s character or behavior. We have only the very short childhood scenes, and Bronson’s own statement that his solitary confinement was his grand hotel room, and that’s all the movie offers for motivation. The movie also necessarily distorts certain realities: Bronson spent 30 of his 34 incarcerated years in solitary confinement, which just isn’t very cinematic. So we see him being released and drugged up and committing crimes, although many of them may have never happened.

And it seems to me—and this is pure interpretation, I have nothing to back it up—that this movie is somehow about the undiluted abstractions of masculinity and violence. When we see Bronson painted black, and fighting in the nude in slow-motion, it kind of becomes about the image of the strong man and his fruitless rage against forces that try to restrain him. In this way the sequences that reminded me of a music video aren’t by accident: the movie is about just the image itself, and the abstraction of male power and struggle. The sequences of Bronson on stage and in makeup [not to mention the levels of irony and parody that fill his life, like the exaggerated Popeye walk] indicate that his life is being set up as a big performance, and some in the press have described him as a “performance artist” whose medium is prison struggle. Many other reviews compare the film to A Clockwork Orange, in that it’s about trying to retrain a violent force to conform to society’s wishes. I can see the connection, but I don’t really agree, since the film spends no time on the prison’s attempts to tame Bronson—it concentrates solely on Bronson and the simple force of who he is.

Tom Hardy—who many in the States may know only through his disastrous turn in Star Trek: Nemesis, reveals that he actually CAN act, and offers another example of how a bad film poorly directed can make an actor seem awful when they aren’t necessarily. There’s not much explicitly gay about this film, but it maintains gay interest for its interest in the male physique and in male power and rage. Bronson is also often surrounded by gay people in the film, and the final incident with the art teacher really brings this all out. The teacher is clearly presented as gay, and as having quite an interest in Bronson—he seems to imagine that he has achieved some special intimacy with Bronson. That Bronson likes him too, and he’s Bronson’s special buddy. And what happens next is—extremely un-PC thoughts coming up here—is, in one way, the fulfillment of his fantasy. Maybe the art teacher thinks it would be nice to have tea and cakes with Bronson and be brought into his intimate circle, but being tied up and terrorized by him is perhaps more exciting, and more of what he secretly wants. One isn’t fascinated by rapists or violent criminals because one wants to do macramé with them. So in this way the film acknowledges the homosexual interest in this big muscleman and his horrible, bad—but oh-so-exciting—ways. And again the reduction of Bronson to an abstraction and image is in line with this—it’s the old famous male gaze, with us the audience gazing with horror and fascination at this masculine force of nature.

So yeah, go see Bronson, it’s interesting and there’s a big hunky guy to look at. Now if we could only get more guys to pattern their looks after circus strongmen instead of Bette Midler.

Should you watch it: 

Hello!?!? What did I just say?