Film Review: Bronson.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Bronson, directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and staring Tom Hardy.

Image from film Bronson, directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, produced by Aramid Entertainment et al, streamed on Kanopy database.

BRONSON

From it’s startling, hyper-stylised sequence of a naked, oiled Tom Hardy prowling a cage barely big enough to contain a human form – bathed in the garish, dangerous red lighting that is a constant in the films of this director (more on that later), and with the darkly verdant, ringing tones of Scott Walker’s song “The Electrician” scoring the claustrophobic intensity, it’s obvious that Bronson is a movie that is going to swing big.

With the gift of hindsight, it’s pretty easy to posit that when Bronson was released into the world in 2008, it could be seen a watershed piece of work. Prior to this film, both its director Nicholas Winding Refn and Hardy, the movie’s star and primal energy source, had decent bodies of work behind them – minor successes, minor failures, but after Bronson, nothing about either craftsman would be middling. It’s a movie that swaggered into the room, not so much exuding confidence, but stamping its foot in the dust and proclaiming, “We are here!”, warts and all.  After this, nothing ordinary would suffice from either. As Bronson himself points out in his continual running narration – “They don’t give you a star on the walk of fame for “Not Bad” do they?” Like it’s subject, this is a movie that is determined to be remembered – for its vicious theatricality if nothing else.

Speaking of its subject, Charlie Bronson (born under the name Michael Peterson, but preferring to be remembered under his “stage name” used during his stint in the world of bare-knuckle boxing) is a character of renown, labelled as one of the UK’s most violent and eccentric convicts and having spent more than half his life incarcerated. Much like Australia’s Chopper Read, he’s a character whose cultural shadow has grown beyond the facts or deeds of the real, damaged human at their source. And also, like Chopper, someone whose victims barely rate a mention in the face of the myths surrounding their aggressor. Unlike the film made around the deeds of Mr Read, Bronson chooses to dismiss all pretence to being grounded in any kind of gritty reality.  This is an operatic, psychedelic roller coaster of a film that asks us to check conventional morality at the door and ride along with the self-aggrandising, sing-song storytelling of an extremely charismatic monster.

And Hardy is more than up for it – his strange mixture of brutishness and beauty fully on display for the first time here, and used as the fulcrum for Refn’s tireless, constantly prowling camera. The director’s previous films were all noteworthy, particularly the raw, stylish Pusher series, but here his confidence and fearlessness blossom. It’s no coincidence that he utilises the hands of cinematographer Larry Smith, who had worked on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, to take us into the endless barren hallways and sense-distorting rooms of captivity that the viewer travels through in this whirlwind of a tale.

There’s a kind of mini-genre that’s cropped up in the 2010s that I think of as Neon Noir. Stories of unscrupulous people committing dangerous deeds, bathed in the unearthly, garish glow of reds, blues and pinks designed to attract and entice while actually revealing new dimensions to the aberrant behaviour being acted out. Films like the John Wick series would never exist as we know them without the groundwork laid by Refn. The director’s colour blindness, which allows him to only perceive contrast, has become one of his greatest tools in putting together compositions so bold and unnatural that many creators would reject them under the grounds of taste or subtlety. His over-saturation and complete other-worldliness is beginning to appear in Bronson, like a new strange flower blooming.

Like A Clockwork Orange, Oldboy, Pink Flamingos or Fellini’s Satyricon, this is a movie that doesn’t necessarily appeal to our better angels but asks us to spend time with characters of a more sinister bent. Most importantly, characters who bring with them the strange, crooked glamour of perversity. A conversation with the Id, knowing it’s doomed to the judgement of its actions but nonetheless pleading its case – demanding to be acknowledged as at least infamous. Which is a far better option than anonymity.

Further reading

  • Hard Men. Romney, J.; Refn, N.W., 2010. Film Comment, Vol.46(4), pp.26-29 (article)
  • All the world's a stage. Corless, K., 2009. Sight and Sound, Vol.19(4), p.15 (article)
  • Hard Time. Pizzello, S., 2009. American Cinematographer, Vol.90(10), pp.44-50, 52, 54, 56-57, 8 (article)
  • Bronson. Wheatley, C., 2009. Sight and Sound, Vol.19(4), p.51 (article)
  • The Danish Directors 2 : Dialogues on the New Danish Fiction Cinema, edited by Hjort Mette et al., Intellect Books Ltd, 2010 (ebook)
  • Cult filmmakers : 50 movie mavericks you need to know / Smith, I.H.; Rodeia, K; London, England : White Lion Publishing; 2019 (ebook)
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