Bronson (2008) – What Have You Got?


There is a man in a cage. Naked, covered in filth and blood, circling, fists ready.  “I always knew I was made for better things.  I had a calling.” The skin-headed, straight-faced Bronson (Tom Hardy) tells us, direct to camera.  The gates open, and riot police pile into the tiny cell.  The naked man launches himself into battle.  He isn’t trying to escape, he’s fighting because he has anger and violence built into him, and he sees himself as an artist of mayhem.

Anyone going into Bronson expecting another British Guy Ritchie-esque Right Old Cockney Barrel of Monkeys will be suitably devastated by Danish helmer Nicolas Winding Refn’s first full UK feature, an incendiary, exhilarating character study of Britain’s most infamous inmate, Michael Peterson/Charles Bronson.

A petty crook who copped a seven-year stretch for holding up a post office with a sawn-off shotgun, one-man-riot Bronson brawled his way to thirty-four years inside, thirty of them in solitary confinement.

Bronson didn’t have the usual back story of cinema psychos.  He had an ordinary upbringing in a middle class family, grew up in suburban boredom of 70’s Britain.  He wasn’t abused or deprived, just had a restless urge to throw himself against the system.  Once inside, Bronson admits he loves it – “It was finally a place where I could sharpen my tools.”

A Clockwork Orange is the most obvious antecedent of Bronson.  Like Burgess’ Alex, Bronson sees violence as freedom of expression, and the movie generates its friction by how the authorities seek to contain the brutality within a man.

Unlike A Clockwork Orange, there is no philosophical McGuffin.  A Clockwork Orange asked, what is more evil?  A man performing evil acts, or a society depriving that individual of the free will to commit them?

Based on a true story, Bronson tests the sensibilities of even the wooliest liberal: If you have a man who unrepentantly terrorizes everyone who crosses his path, even those who place their faith and trust in him, what can you do but lock him in a cage?

Tom Hardy portrays Bronson in an electrifying, balls out (literally) performance, easily as good as Malcolm McDowall in Orange, or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

I mention these characters because Bronson falls into the same category of intellectual-psycho movies, which perform a valuable service to society.

A Clockwork Orange dared the viewer to paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s famous quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Heath Ledger’s Joker, with Gotham City trembling in his nihilistic grasp, forced the protagonists and citizens to make agonizing moral decisions.

In between, we can talk about Seven‘s John Doe (Kevin Spacey), digging up the original deadly sins to hold a mirror to a morally bankrupt, alienated society.  Hannibal Lecter originally depicted cold, calculating evil, but as the series ran, he eventually became a kind of super-antihero with impeccable manners, punishing those with insufficient intellect or etiquette.

It is also worth mentioning Jigsaw from the Saw franchise, whose grimy labyrinths of fiendish death threw his banal victims into a high-stress nightmare of live-or-die existential crisis.

No matter how depraved or despicable these intellectual psychos get, their acts are reassuring.  So many real life crimes are grubby and meaningless, it at least lifts our battered spirits to imagine the killer might have a loftier purpose for his crimes.

Bronson, although fitting the category, is more problematic.  Bronson doesn’t know what he wants.  He strives to become Britain’s most violent criminal, is dismissed as Britain’s most costly, and is released.

On the outside, he is lost, and after a short-lived career of bare-knuckle fighting, gets banged up again.  The last third of the movie focuses on Bronson’s desires.

After taking a prison librarian hostage, he’s passed a phone.  The governor patiently asks him what he wants.  He’s perplexed.  “What have you got?”

The response echoes Brando’s famous line in The Wild One – “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Johnny: “Whaddya Got?”

There is no answer to Bronson, and it thrives on the viewer’s desire for the maniacal and destructive.  Hardy makes this a cause worth backing, creating a character so vibrantly alive and strangely charming that it’s hard not to root for him as he launches himself into another self-provoked battle he can’t win.

Apart from the central theme as violence as an art form or freedom of expression, Bronson shares other similarities to Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange.  Classical music provides the soundtrack for most of the film’s violent scenes, and Larry Smith’s cinematography does a grand job of emulating Kubrick’s chilly gaze with wit and panache.

There are some loose ends, some questions.  The young Peterson, before the post office stand up, has a missus and kid, which are never mentioned again.  His artistic temperament drifts him into artistic circles of a different kind – the three characters he doesn’t beat up on sight range from camp to outright queer.  Is the film trying to steer us towards deducing repressed homosexual tendencies?

Scenes involving Bronson’s foppish uncle recall the territory of another unreconstructed cinema nutjob, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet, whose eye-popping rage subdues somewhat in the environs of “suave fucker” Ben’s (Dean Stockwell) retro 50’s apartment.

In the end, Bronson is the victim of his own behaviour, the joke is on him, which ultimately makes him a comical figure.  Every prison movie has a governor as nemesis for the hero or antihero, from Porridge through to Runaway Train.  It’s rare to find one we agree with, but it’s hard not to nod with Jonathan Phillip’s sneering guv when he witheringly says: “You’re ridiculous.”

Although you might not want to say it to his face, Bronson is ridiculous.  For all his desire for fame and attention, he ends up as Britain’s most self-defeating prisoner.  If violence is his art, it’s a losing vocation, because a show isn’t anything without an audience.  Thirty years in solitary confinement means a lot of empty seats.


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 23/07/2012, in action, B, Drama, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Prison, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Good review. I liked this flick in certain spots, mainly the spots where it was just Tom Hardy being a total bad-ass, but it felt a bit uneven for me. That narration is obviously a lot like A Clockwork Orange and seems like it really wants to be just like that flick with all of its violence and sadistic themes, but it just ends up not doing much with a story that had plenty of potential.

    • Yes, I agree more could have been done with Bronson’s story. The Broadmoor riot could have been a movie in itself. It’s a shame the similarities with Clockwork Orange are so strong, because with a character like this, it could have forged it’s own legend instead of clinging onto Kubrick’s coattails.

  2. I want to watch this one again. It got fairly piddly reviews when it was released by now that Tom Hardy and Nicolas Winding Refn are becoming household names (well, Refn is probably more referred to as “the guy that did Drive”) this one seems to be getting the recognition it deserves. Excellent write-up

    • Thanks! You’re right, people are starting to return to it now, especially now Tom Hardy is a big star. I don’t think the similarities with Clockwork Orange did it any favours originally, but as time goes on it’ll stand out on its own.

  1. Pingback: Bronson (2008) | timneath

  2. Pingback: Bronson (2008) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist

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