The basic conceit of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson is such: Bronson (Tom Hardy) wants to be famous, he isn’t good at much aside from beating the shit out of people and so, after knocking over a store, he’s thrown in jail and seeks his fame by becoming Britain’s most violent prisoner. Twenty minutes in, after a few gloriously violent tumbles with classmates and numerous prison wardens, the narrative sort of just sputters out.
Unlike A Clockwork Orange (the most obvious comparison) or Badlands, the film makes no attempt to link Bronson’s violence to any larger trope outside himself. Violence is his claim to fame, but isn’t the way to celebrity paved with news headlines bought up by a scandal/violence-hungry populace? Aside from a spilt-second observation on how the government would rather let the sociopathic Bronson out of the insane asylum (which he’s sent to after unrelentingly wreaking havoc in prison) than foot the high bill for keeping him in, Refn remains content with simply staging elaborate showpieces of Bronson’s gleeful sadism. Violence for violence’s sake—nihilism at its best. You get the sense that Refn doesn’t take the material too seriously, so faulting the film for lacking an overarching sociological/psychological thread may be a little unfair. But honestly, even though some of the mad scrabbles that Bronson gets into are fearsome to watch, after you’ve seen one nasty fight you’ve kind of seen them all; it’s repetitive and there’s just not much narrative-wise to keep you interested.
The best thing about Bronson is Tom Hardy’s performance. Mired in vaudevillian caricature (there are even numerous fantasy sequences in which Bronson, sporting a Meliés-esque mustache, stands on a stage recounting his exploits to a packed theater), Hardy’s take on Bronson is, wonderfully, neither self-important nor self-conscious (note scenes of full frontal nudity in which he is alternately covered in butter and grease paint). Physically he embodies the role perfectly: a mass of thickly bulging muscles, arms so flexed he’s worthy any circus strongman. And every time he sighs it sounds like a balloon deflating. Also, in those scenes where he’s bald-headed and clean shaven, I swear he looks just like Lars von Trier in The Element of Crime, a film that, unlike Bronson, is an exquisitely fine-tuned psychological meditation on the operation of crime/violence within a decaying society. Anyway, Hardy manages to turn a thinly-scripted character into a showman dynamo.
Refn’s washed out tableaux are a noteworthy example of form meeting function. All the colors look as though they’ve been subjected to a cycle of bleach and are anti-aesthetic, ugly, even; unattractive cinema fit for the degenerative man at its core. But when a former prison buddy informs Bronson, “You just pissed on a gypsy on the middle of fucking nowhere,” it pretty much sums up the film: Moments of ecstatic brutality that never amount to anything outside their own existence.
Veronika Ferdman is a student at USC, earning BA’s in Philosophy and Critical Studies-Film.