Clockwork Orange fictionalized with copious Kubrick-isms, Bronson is a fast, ferocious, wickedly funny portrait of one man’s acceptance of his bone-deep animalism. As a kid in the ’60s, Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy) enjoyed beating up fellow schoolmates for no good reason, and as a married father, he decided to saw off a shotgun (with wife and baby in the other room) and rob a jewelry store, a heist that netted him little cash but seven years in prison. Inside, he was home, fashioning his penitentiary confines as a “hotel” where he could finally be himself—which is to say, finally let loose with maniac violent tendencies epitomized by his new nickname Charles Bronson. Those brutal inclinations generally took the form of misbehaving so he could slug it out with guards who, knowing what to expect, arrived at fights decked out in riot gear.
Bronson was an unbridled beast, as evident from director Nicolas Winding Refn’s blistering opening salvo, a character-defining blood-red depiction of Peterson pacing side to side, naked and covered in filth, inside a cage, his fury rising as he psyches himself up for forthcoming fisticuffs, which in Bronson typically arrive in slow-motion and staged to crashing classical music and opera or ’80s synth-pop like the Pet Shop Boys’ devilishly appropriate “It’s a Sin.” Bronson wastes no time immersing itself in its subject’s manic rage, alternating between vicious set pieces in which Bronson goes toe-to-toe with others, and to-the-camera narration in which he’s set against a black backdrop while on stage in front of an audience, sequences that complement his stated desire to be a star. He was, albeit of a decidedly infamous variety, since despite being released from jail for his original crime (and never committing a single murder), Peterson would spend 30 of his next 34 years not only behind bars but in solitary confinement.
During a brief stint on the outside, Peterson, on the suggestion of a foppish former inmate, took up the name Charles Bronson in homage to the actor’s hostile Death Wish persona. The psycho to whom director Refn more than subtly likens his protagonist, however, is Clockwork Orange’s droog Alex, another antisocial misfit immune to the mainstream’s socializing mechanisms. No rehabilitating Ludovico technique here: Bronson’s bestiality was incomprehensible and immutable, and consequently, solely treatable through severe containment. Alienation was thus his destiny, and amid his numerous violent clashes, director Refn shrewdly pinpoints—through images of a free Bronson getting trapped in his parents’ locked car, proving unable to open a locked gate, and facing closing doors—how psychosis of this extreme sort could only lead to literal and figurative captivity.
Whereas Bronson was a preternaturally nasty bloke, he was also a self-described “comedian,” and Bronson’s coup de grace isn’t simply its fitting Kubrick-indebted aesthetics—ominously patient, teasing camerawork, gorgeously symmetrical and low-level compositions, incongruous blending of sound and image, as well as its direct allusions to the Korova Milk Bar (in a strip club) and Alex’s iconic style—but its protagonist’s jet-black humor. As the famed inmate, whose bald head, upturned mustache, and imposing physique (usually nude or in white long-sleeved T-shirts) resembled that of a cartoon carnival strongman, Hardy is a whirlwind force of nature, stomping around a cell like a one-track pain train, leaping into battle with rabid-dog intensity (in one sequence, he actually takes on a Doberman), and in his first-person monologues, flashing unnervingly funny menace. Bronson so immediately and definitively establishes its template and character that each scene soon plays like a disturbed Loony Tunes cartoon replete with concluding punch(line). And when Bronson appears on stage with face covered in white makeup (and, in a magnificently deranged, schizo sequence, with half his face au natural and the other half done up like a mad Nurse Ratchet), Refn strikingly nails his subject as a monstrous clown, a lunatic who took great, sadistically comical pleasure from putting fists to flesh.