Michael Peterson, first sent to prison in 1974 for a seven-year term, has since spent his life behind bars, with all but four of those years served in solitary. During that time, he rechristened himself "Charles Bronson" and, through various acts of violence, became a tabloid fixture.
Now the infamous Bronson is the subject of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's highly stylized film, which floats somewhere between dark comedy, bio-pic and grim fantasia about fame. The film is narrated by Bronson (played by Tom Hardy), and in a series of loosely linked vignettes we learn how he ended up in prison, and why he remains there.
We don't learn much about the why of Bronson's self-destructive tendencies -- other than his compulsive and admitted need to be recognized. Bronson himself is an unreliable narrator: He's likely mad, and actively engaged in myth-making.
The directorial flourishes and the shocking subject matter recall A Clockwork Orange, David Lynch films and other art-house meditations on violence. What makes Bronson watchable is Hardy, who delivers a gripping, physical performance. Even when Bronson is immobile (and naked), Hardy radiates fearsome intensity. He also makes Bronson engaging, even as we recognize he's horrifying.
There's little narrative, and Bronson often free-floats through weird or disturbing scenes: drugged mental patients dancing to Pet Shop Boys, or a naked Bronson being dragged down yet another squalid prison corridor by guards. But distinct time and space disappear in a life spent in jails and institutions. The few scenes shot outside the prison are stilted: For whatever reason, Bronson comes alive behind bars, and then, most keenly, in solitary. There he is literally the star, the solo performer, the king of a manageable kingdom.
In Britain, where Bronson is something of a cult hero, there was criticism that the film might play into his self-aggrandizing schemes. But most Americans are likely untainted by decades of tabloid headlines, and will process this film as an imperfect but intriguing character study of a bizarre self-made monster. Starts Sat., Dec. 26. Harris