Lauren Wissot’s review of Valhalla Rising pushed me off the fence I’d been on about seeing the movie yesterday—especially the part about its being almost wordless. Ever since The Road Warrior drove off with the top of my head in 1981, I’ve loved movies that use camerawork, editing, acting, art direction, and other components of film language so well they barely need any words. Talk can be great too, of course: my favorite period in Hollywood is the ’30s and ’40s, when all those screwball and absurdist comedies were having such brilliant fun with dialogue. But I’m so sick of all the empty-headed movies that get stuffed with tone-deaf chatter these days—do the people who made them really think so little of us, or are they just too lazy to find more creative ways of telling a story?—that I’ll check out almost any movie that has the courage to be quiet.
The first two chapters of this macho mood piece intrigued me, but after the third or fourth variation on the same theme, it started feeling ponderous: too slow, too one-note, and leaden where it wanted to be weighty, the electric guitars on the soundtrack too loud and monotone too, like vuvuzelas at the World Cup.
But cowriter/director Nicolas Winding Refn clearly has a vision and a strong sense of style, so I decided to see if I’d like his second-to-last movie better than his latest one. Bronson, which came out in 2008, is hardly wordless, but that’s fine by me, since it’s wildly inventive and evocative.
Based on a book by the real Bronson, a career prisoner who’s still doing time and who prides himself on being “Britain’s most violent prisoner,” it’s narrated by Bronson himself (an astonishingly good Tom Hardy). Refn cuts between more conventional scenes in which Hardy and others act out the story and Bronson’s highly theatrical narration, in which he addresses the camera directly or plays to an adoring theater audience, often in face paint or a mask (“I always wanted to be famous,” he informs us). It’s the thug version of All That Jazz, except that it’s hard to imagine anyone envying or admiring Bronson.
There’s something about gangsters and other violent sociopaths that will always fascinate us, though, and Refn plays to that fascination. Turning up his amp to 11, he makes his movie pulsate with adrenaline-charged music, hallucinogenic colors, frequent bursts of black humor, and recurrent explosions of intense, unpredictable violence. In an early scene that sets the tone, Bronson shadow boxes in his cell, preparing for one of many all-out battles with his guards. All we see are the black bars of his cage-like cell and his naked body, which is bathed in blood-red light and multiplied by jump cuts and double exposures.
Stiff and muscle-bound whenever he walks, Bronson is painfully awkward in social situations, so unaccustomed to normal human interaction that a kiss from a pretty girl makes him tremble uncontrollably. It may sound harsh when the warden of one of his prisons calls him “pathetic” and “pitiful,” but it’s not far off the mark. Bronson may make violence into a performance art, but he doesn’t seem fit for much of anything else.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.