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Bronson - a film by Nicolas Winding Refn

Updated on April 20, 2015

Films by Nicolas Winding Refn

from animal to artist...

Nicolas Winding Refn, the writer and director of Pusher, Pusher II, Pusher III, Fear X, and Drive, continues his collection of non-commercial films with Bronson, starring Tom Hardy. These personal films have fortunately found an audience, allowing this filmmaker to experiment with narrative in a way that is typically unique to fiction authors and poets. The cost of production often prohibits too much creativity within the world of filmmaking.

In this film Refn juxtaposes images of Charlie Bronson’s subconscious, with fragment’s of what we are to assume are a third person narrative, with news footage, and with still photos. We jump in and out of Bronson’s head as he narrates seamlessly over all of these contrasting perspectives, sometimes unwittingly revealing fears and needs, and sometimes delineating the chronology of his life. Sometimes he speaks directly to the camera, and then Refn cuts using matching action so that Bronson is talking to a large faceless audience that cheers him on.

Within this collage of perspectives, Refn creates an image of an animal isolated and unable to relate, struggling to be understood by the rest of the world, often using violence as his means of being recognized.

In one sense, this is a story of violence. It is the story of Charlie Bronson, a real person; Britain’s well known most violent criminal. It is the perfect subject matter for your commercial – money making – Prison movie. This is, of course, not what Refn gives us. He gives us the idea of Charlie Bronson that exists beyond the confines of linear time. Through these collages of perspectives and monologues and distant laughing audiences, we are drawn into Bronson’s penetrating thoughts and isolation. You can almost feel yourself in Bronson’s skull, looking through his eyes.

Charlie Bronson’s real name is Michael Peterson. As per the suggestion of his manager – he was a bare knuckle boxer – he changed his name to Charlie Bronson.

Ironically, for someone considered the most violent criminal in Britain, the crime that he initially went to prison for was robbing £26 from a post office where no one was hurt. Most of the violence ensued after being locked up. On many occasions he took hostages, often guards, demanding anything from milk and cookies, to music, to planes and machine guns. He would seek out opportunities to attack guards (while still managing to be well liked by many of the guards.) On one occasion he led a protest on the prison roofs for several days, playing with fire, and caused £750,000.00 of damage.

He was moved 120 times in an attempt to nullify his behavior, and has been in solitary confinement for over 30 of his 34 plus years and counting.

Bronson was an exercise fanatic. He wrote several books, and some of them were on working out in small spaces.

As Tom Hardy (also Praetor Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis, Jean Luc Picard’s clone, or maybe better known now as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises) teamed up with Refn to portray Bronson, he put on almost 40 pounds of muscle in five weeks. He also listened to tapes, phone calls, and has become friends with Charlie Bronson himself. Tom Hardy transforms into Charlie Bronson, adapting his physique, his posture, his mannerisms, his voice, and way of speaking.

Hardy describes this process as first getting down the cadence in Bronson’s speech, and then building around that. After watching the movie, it is funny hearing Tom Hardy’s voice and manner of speaking in an interview, using his natural tongue, as he so naturally performed with Bronson’s voice that you can’t imagine him existing without it. Tom Hardy’s real voice becomes the one that sounds like a performance.

Tom Hardy’s work was essential to bring about Refn’s vision: the isolation, the transformation from animal to artist, the respect he had for the guards while he attacked them in numbers, the countless contradictions.

There is nothing in the movie as poignant as when Bronson breaks the silence of one of his moments of internal brooding, responding to his prison art teacher with a slow turn of the head, “what do you mean we?” of course predicating another hostage situation.

This person – hostage - prison art teacher - saw potential in Charlie through his artwork during a previous tense moment, when he called one of Bronson’s pieces “interesting.” He was able to diffuse the situation with a genuine suggestion, “Find that piece of you Charles, that piece, that piece that doesn’t belong here.”

Bronson took this advice to heart and began to explore art with the same intensity he approached everything else. Refn successfully capture’s this transformation by surrounding Bronson with floating images of his own creation. As Bronson reaches a point where he is actually somewhat developed, he is brought to the Warden by the art teacher (and many guards.) The Warden refuses to look at any of his artwork, discarding it, handing it to a guard. For Bronson, the Warden’s refusal to acknowledge him as an artist – a human – again underlines the isolation. This is what prefaces the line, “What do you mean we?”

When Refn cuts to the image of Bronson on stage, talking to the distant audience again, their response is more detached and inappropriate than any of the preceding times. On stage this final time, Bronson seems the more aware of and troubled by the audience's distance than he had previously.

The Art Teacher is tied to the banister. Bronson is naked. He has covered his body with black shoe polish. He has used the art materials to transform his teacher into his own alter ego. He is lost in the moment, transfixed, as he paints on his teacher. It is a work of art that the Warden won’t so easily be able to dismiss.

Bronson then calls on the guards as he snaps out of it, “He’s had enough. Get him out of here! Come on!” His weight sinks as he’s ready to take on the guards, merging his two forms of art - visual art and the art of brutality. As he exchanges blows with the guards, in that moment of animalistic release, it is one of the few times he feels like he is sharing something with other living people. He shares what he was not able to share with the Warden through artwork.

As Bronson prepares himself for the guards coming through the door, Refn successfully puts us in Bronson’s head, sharing the nervous energy of anticipation, and allows us to really understand the violence in a new way… appreciating it as someone’s only means of communication.


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    • film critic profile imageAUTHOR

      film critic 

      15 months ago

      Neon Demons... also a bit shy on realization...

    • film critic profile imageAUTHOR

      film critic 

      3 years ago

      Well... Only God Forgives did not meet expectations, but we shall anticipate "Neon Demons" with high expectations none the less.

    • profile image

      Skin Deep 

      5 years ago

      Awesome movie! Looking forward to Only God Forgives!


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