Despite what the tenets of auteur theory insist, I tend to view film as a collaborative medium. Directors are important, and they certainly put their own unique stamp on a finished project, but to insinuate everything about film ultimately revolves around the director is like saying a great orchestra performance is solely because of the conductor. Film is a symbiotic thing-a group of elements and disciplines being forced to work together in the formation of a whole. Sometimes a contribution from a person other than the director is what takes a title out of the average category and shifts it over to "something special"-which is precisely what's happened with Nicholas Winding Refn's Bronson.
A dramatized story about England's most notorious incarcerated felon, Bronson works not so much because of Refn's direction (which can be viewed in one of two ways-stylish or obnoxious) but instead because actor Tom Hardy turns in one of the most intensely ferocious performances I've seen in quite some time. Hardy's portrayal of Michael Peterson (who takes the name Charles Bronson to help launch his bare-knuckle boxing career) has only one speed: bombastic. However, where other actors might take this kind of character and cross over into the land of caricature, Hardy straddles the line with the grace a tightrope walker. In fact, it's hard to call this performance understated at first glance, but in some ways it is. The actor has this great way of using his body language to convey a wide range of emotions and details about his character. Couple that with the fact Hardy's totally comfortable doing numerous scenes with full frontal nudity and I find myself wondering why his portrayal didn't garner more awards buzz. Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for being the standout performer in an otherwise mediocre movie this year, and Bronson is a better film on the whole.
Refn has crafted a tale that's one part Fight Club, one part A Clockwork Orange, with a dollop of British gangster films and arthouse fare thrown in for seasoning. The entire film is presented in vignette fashion, chronicling Bronson's normal childhood, his discovery that prison was a great place for him, a 69 day stint of freedom mixed in to his 34 years of incarceration, and more. What it's really about though is a man who's such a masochist that he willfully takes prison personnel hostage so he can duke it out with the guards when they bust in to restore order. Bronson never looks as comfortable as he does when he's naked and greased up and punching guards in the face. While the concept seems utterly alien to us "normal" folk, there's something intriguing about Bronson having found the thing that makes him happy. If we're all supposed to "follow our bliss", here's a guy who's actually doing it.
Even when the film veers into surreal territory (anytime Refn cuts to sequences with Bronson performing his one man show in front of a live theatrical audience), the power of Hardy's portrayal keeps things on track. Refn is a filmmaker who's certainly got an aesthetic style (first witnessed in his Pusher trilogy) and it can be an acquired taste. Bronson has a disconcerting visual style-it's well shot, but it's garish and overlit at times. I'm sure this is intentional, but it can be distracting. Hardy's Bronson is more than enough to keep the audience engaged, but Refn's insistence on adding to the "noise" of the film threatens to overwhelm his audience at times.
Fortunately, the minor missteps are more questionable choices than things that ruin the film. And, to be fair, Refn certainly deserves credit for presenting the film with no pat resolution. There's no moment where we get a scene that makes Bronson make sense-no beating in childhood, no rejection by his first love, none of that. Hardy's Bronson is allowed to exist as a character who simply is. We can pontificate for days as to how he became that person, but it's just that-idle musing. Some have complained that the film should have offered up some kind of deeper explanation for why Bronson is who he is-and they have a legitimate point. The character is primarily represented by his bombastic outer shell. However, there are hints of the deeper Bronson littered throughout the narrative (particularly in his reaction to his burgeoning artistic skills). Refn's film and Hardy's performance refuse to hold the audience's hand and I'm thankful for that.
Bronson won't appeal to everyone-the subject matter and occasional bits of brutality are bound to be too much for some audiences. However, anyone looking for a fascinating character study about a guy you'd cross the street to avoid should give this one a look.