Bronson is a film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn starring Tom Hardy as Michael Peterson, a real man who's still alive, a criminal who had his name legally changed to Charles Bronson. He remains Britain’s most famous and most violent prisoner, so claims the script and I’m inclined to believe them. The film’s conceit is simple: an ultra stylish trip inside the mind and life of Bronson focusing on his stays in jail where he engages in fistfights as frequently as possible. A man beats people nearly to death in jail. Not a lot to hinge a film on, I think you’ll agree, yet I loved it. Does it say something about me? The films? England? I’m going to try to figure out how we get to Bronson and why I love it so much.
The 'Real' Charles Bronson
The ride to Bronson:
I’m an impressionable young man. Perhaps unimpressed with my own personality, I’ve always sought direction in charismatic leading men. Lucky for me, British Pop culture is full of them. They swagger, stagger, bristle and brim with love and confidence in themselves and their stories highlight lifestyles (bad, good, destructive…. mostly destructive) that I’d never be able to get away with. First of all, they terrify me to consider them, but that doesn’t stop me from emulating them in the little ways I can. This love of mine, searching for a path and a style to stand in awe of has led me to films, books and music that I would fight to assert their genius among others. Were it not the slurring and screaming likes of Ian McColluch, Joe Strummer or Shane McGowan, I doubt very much I’d have spent as much as I have on vinyl copies of the best records by Echo & The Bunnymen, The Clash or The Pogues. I wouldn’t go deaf listening to them either. But I do. If it weren’t for the singular charm of the hero of A Clockwork Orange (and I mean Anthony Burgess, the book’s relentless purveyor of fascinating prose more than Alex, the hero of the novel), I doubt very much I’d prize it above the hopelessly bourgeois and tame required reading of most literature courses. Something must come screaming out of the gate with two cocked fists, a mouth full of profance promises and what they lack in muscle they must make-up for in style in order to qualify as a hero – a métier, to steal a phrase, this time from Volker Schlöndorff and Torben Skjødt Jensen. I found these figures just as frequently in the directors of the films whose characters I so envied. Jean-Pierre Melville for instance, despite being married, was just as appealing an outcast as any character Alain Delon played for him. He looked like Hunter Thompson plus the 3 stone Tom Hardy put on to play Charlie Bronson, though mostly in paunch rather than muscle, he wore a suit and cowboy hat, made moody and beautiful films about violence and the cult of personality surrounding gangsters. He romanticized and improved a form that most people simply tried to present. But the one thing he didn’t do was make ordinary examples of the form. The best of his three war films, 1969’s Army of Shadows, shows a man deeply troubled by violence, paranoia and warfare. The film is exceptionally dark and is one of the first films, along with Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent to stare collaboration and the lie that is wartime heroism in the face and show you just how ugly and horrifying and glory-free it all is. Shepitko is another figure I much idolize, cut down in a car accident in the middle of directing her last film like the James Dean of auteurs. Her films are stunning, brutal and are largely about outsiders, dying and breaking the rules because they are compelled to do so; they have no choice. Their bodies push them forward even as they seem to know how dangerous and futile their decisions are. Not a one of hers or Melville’s films ends on a high note, though their implications are positive with regard to the temple-like figures of their heroes. Who cares that they died? It’s how they got there that interests us. It’s what they did with their final days. All of this logic is crucial in understanding Bronson, or anyway its fundamental appeal to me as scurrilous cineaste and as pacifist become vicariously violent through art and artists.
Bronson’s life starts most probably in 1971 with the film A Clockwork Orange. Stanley Kubrick must be commended for choosing Burgess’s novel as the basis of a film; it was dangerous, one of the myriad at one time deemed unfilmable by people who seem to have nothing better to do than talk about the cinematic quality of classic novels; incidentally even the earliest films were based on novels, so I think that’s enough of that talk. We’ve seen Catch-22, The 120 Days of Sodom and Trainspotting (on which more anon) not only turn into films but films that compliment their sources and have become classics in their own right and one of these days Gilliam is going to get Don Quixote right. Nothing is impossible (though Great Gatsby has proven difficult). But what Kubrick proved is that prose can become cinematic if given the proper amount of respect (that is to say, not too much) and if you allow your images to take the place of expository description and the like. It was also dangerous because it was so intoxicating; youths took to the streets in perhaps exaggerated sprees of criminal behavior and tellingly the rip-offs began hitting theatres the very next year. It does seem perfunctory to have to tell you to steer clear of Killer’s Moon and Murder in a Blue World, but I’m going to have to tell a brutal truth at this point. Bronson has been called “Kubrickian” in its notices, which is a polite way of saying it’s a lot like Clockwork Orange. So, yes, it shares a common gene with Kubrick. The differences however are important. First of all, Refn’s style is ten times as intoxicating as Kubrick’s. The thing that bothers me most about Kubrick is the static quality of so many of his images. Large portions of Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and nearly all of Barry Lyndon just sit there; it’s as if Kubrick stumbled upon people modeling for an impressionistic paintings with his thoroughly non-discriminating camera. The frame is too big and the actors move through so languorously that I can’t help but be drawn out of the narrative and just imagine Kubrick sitting behind the camera. I don’t deny that Barry Lyndon has gorgeous photography or that Clockwork has some very arresting images but his choreographed action is so lackluster that I can’t really be drawn in. It appears as though after 2001’s critical and commercial success, he determined that what sells is slow, unmoving shots. He wasn’t wrong; Lyndon, Clockwork and Jacket are considered classics by everyone but myself and a few other insolent cinephiles I’ve met. The Shining is a much more mobile film and thus escapes my criticism; in fact I love The Shining. But in Clockwork the stuff that stays with me is the ingenious use of close-up and imposing claustrophobia. In fact if you were asked to remember what most stays with you about Clockwork I’d put money on it being the close-up on Alex’s eyes, first with one painted in the opening scenes and then when they’re pried open during therapy. I’d also venture to guess that the scenes of Alex and his friends wailing on the old fellow in the underpass as another memorable visual; this makes sense. The shadows of the boys, the roof over their heads and the roof they form over the old man all create limits and make the movement seem more deft. There are boundaries; a never-ending frame is the ending of narrative coherence and immediacy in Kubrick films. In Full Metal Jacket for example the corridors of the basic training camp give way to open skies as the men are put through the ringer. The feeling of endlessness is perpetual and it bores me terribly, nevermind that I find part one of Jacket a less effective retread of his thesis in Clockwork. And the other thing you’ll likely come away from Clockwork with fond memories of is Malcolm McDowell. Granted Kubrick was his director but McDowell’s charisma was not exactly in short supply; find Lindsay Anderson’s superior 1968 film If…. and one discovers that it isn’t so much that McDowell was perfect for Clockwork but that Clockwork was perfect for McDowell. Usually it is a confluence between the purest filtration of a director’s style and a film centered on a highly likable scoundrel that results in the ‘film that they’ll remember me for’. Kubrick’s filmography is loaded with them, as is Martin Scorsese’s, John Huston’s, Roman Polanski’s.... Bill Murray has made a career of making films for directors with very specific visions all the better for featuring his wizened face and much welcome cynicism. McDowell, for his part, is tremendous, I just think the film fails him, but no one notices because he is so fascinating a protagonist and he carries the film from the first reel to the last. We love the loner, the outsider, the hard man.
Tom Hardy as Bronson
And despite my complaints, Clockwork was hugely important and after all without it, we wouldn’t have Bronson at all. We can trace the film’s theme of violent boys being reformed and taught about life on through to last night when I watched it (illegally) for the first time. The 70s are loaded with people not unlike Alex from Clockwork – Sonny Wortzik & Travis Bickle foremost among them. People who lived by violence and whom by the end, we learn, hadn’t changed a wit. Why were these characters so compelling, Oscar-worthy, even? Because we cannot just blow our enemies away and as the films were wont to illustrate, innocent people could be caught in the line of fire. Kubrick saw this when mockwork crimes began plaguing English streets and he tried to have the film pulled from cinemas rather than cause anyone any harm. Though he was undeniably trying to do the right thing, he didn’t. Censorship will not solve problems and it was clear that he needed the public’s favour if he were ever to make films again. Even if it was some backwards way of scaring up more publicity (a banishment is golden in exploitation cinema, after all) Kubrick was not prepared to stand by his film’s vision of violence-as-salvation which says to me that he was not the man to direct it (my opinion of the film's quality notwithstanding). What people really did want to see was the story of a boy who finds solace in ‘the old ultra-violence’ and engages in it whenever he can. The torturous therapy that cures him is just as engaging and horrifying as his crimes so we let it slide. The film becomes neutered when its hero does too. No longer chock full of rage and the urge to maim, he and the film wanders between set-pieces until the film and Alex commit suicide and are reborn. We are finally given an ending that gives us all the film promises: two giant speakers, classical music and venerable violence. It’s a disgusting moral but its also one of the greatest moments in any Kubrick film. What does this say? That style can account for even the lewdest and lowest of morals. In fact if an artist's style can make-up for, even allow for violence and cruelty, then aren’t we in the presence of a true artist? I’m not saying violence is good (I was raised Quaker, not that it all stuck) but I’m saying when a director can sell you on the ‘idea’ of violence (read: anything difficult) he has proven himself (at this time I'd like to point out that gender distinctions are arbitrary in the utmost; a director is a director, male, female, black, white, straight, gay, human. I say him in this case because both Refn and Kubrick were men but in general my use of pronouns is arbitrary and unimportant. Himself is the same thing as saying actor as far as I'm concerned. An actor and an actress have the same job, so why put gender in the equation at all, why give them awards for having been born plus or minus a Y chromosome?). And who doesn’t crack that same smile as Alex when the film closes? Does that make you murderous, cruel, violent, sadistic? No, I should think not, otherwise wouldn’t the world resemble Burgess’s vision of a post-manners England over-run by Nadsat spewing punks who are just as committed to being aesthetes as they are rapists.
Violence and boys-behaving-badly mark a good many great films as well as a good many bad films, but it’s fairly easy to spot the good ones from the lousy ones. Ken Loach’s excellent Looks and Smiles gives us two youths brawling as they can’t find work or much else to do. Their fights, in traditional Loach wide-angle observation, are hypnotic, to be sure, and gain added power by their taking place in one instance just outside a rock club. And what is Punk and its younger brother Post-Punk if not the same kind of energy given purely aural form? The appeal of the Sex Pistols I would argue is much the same as the appeal of Clockwork, albeit for different ends. In fact, the whole notion of punk rock feeds the notion of the charismatic fighting man against the system. Charlie Bronson takes on the system in a very literal sense except he has no message he just has himself. Punk Rock out of context makes the struggle of the centuries most angry lyricists and fills the ears of kids who can’t really understand what it was like to live under Margaret Thatcher. And there is a power embedded in those songs to be sure. They bring you to life with their immediacy; you too can feel like Bronson, bursting with energy, looking to fight someone albeit for different ends. To quote Tymon Dogg in his collaboration with the Clash, “I gotta lose this skin I’m imprisoned in.” And if the fact that the skin on Bronson’s face seems ready to fall off following his final confrontation with the guards, he’s almost succeeded. His arrogance and his quest for fame in what is plainly a no-fame game, mirrors the opening to the first song on the first Echo & The Bunnymen album, Crocodiles. “Anybody watching my film?” asks Ian McColluch brashly yet coolly on “Going Up” another way of saying ‘straight to the top’ which is what Bronson wants to do himself and what we hope he achieves. Bronson, like McColluch, like this film that bears his name, is an actor in need of an audience.
Briefly, however, we can chart the rise of charismatic criminal from Long Good Friday (Bob Hoskins as pugnacious overlord of a violent empire, at his most sensitive just after cutting a man’s throat), on to minor scenes in Ken Loach’s oeuvre as in My Name is Joe and Raining Stones (in a rare moment of absolute sympathy, Loach shows the church granting absolution to a man who beat a loan shark with a tire iron and caused his fatal car crash; he even treats the accidentally-on-purpose murder as the grounds for a sort of miraculous turn of events), then onto Danny Boyle’s beloved (by me especially) Trainspotting wherein junkie’s and pub pugilists are just as infatuating as they are terrifying, David Fincher’s Fight Club (Fincher himself a graduate of the grimy British school; his debut Alien³ is incredibly English and features a cast of uniformly bald and often insane criminals known to fight each other, all precursors to Tom Hardy’s Bronson) which makes a temple out of Brad Pitt’s bleeding and muscular figure; Guy Ritchie attempted the same kind of stylistic coup but failed with his 2000 film Snatch. That Pitt’s admittedly engaging performance wasn’t given center-stage probably had a lot to do with why the film is nowhere near as good as it could have been; it’s too busy for its own good. Richie and the others were onto something, though: style + plus enthralling leading man = something….
The Appeal of Bronson:
What’s more Refn’s film nicely dovetails with a kind of ‘American’ theme, the same thing that Boyle’s film was criticized for at the time of its release. It’s a rags-to-riches story, sort of. Bronson’s cooing that he’s going to “make a name for myself” is hardly news, but it’s simply the way he plans on doing it that really sets him apart. At his most ambitious, he wants to be an underground fighting sensation, but normally he just wants to get naked and beat the merciful shit out of everyone in the prison system. Really more of a rags-to-rags story isn’t it? And this makes a kind of sense as Refn is himself an outsider so his view of the English justice system and the way they punish criminals in films is at odds with the natives’. So instead of taking on the institutionalization of criminals in something resembling an orderly fashion (let’s not forget his hero is a criminally unbalanced psycho/sociopath who deserves every second of his sentence) he simply uses it as a springboard. To be fair, his portrayal of the prison system is no more or less incendiary than that in Steve McQueen’s perfect Hunger, about the hunger strikes in the Maze prison in the 1980s, except that instead of quelling a revolution, the guards in Bronson are stopping a one-man show. So, in essence, Bronson gets everyone, even his final no-nonsense warden, to play his game and listen just like the imaginary audience he tells his story to. And in the same way, Refn gets you to play his game, letting you soak up his style like a piece of bread in English stew.
To prove Refn’s capability as a stylician (my word) take the climactic stint in the art room. The plot comes nearly to a halt as Bronson holds his art teacher hostage in a cozy carpeted art room (the real Bronson is in actuality a fairly talented artist and has won awards, so his kinship with Strummer and McColluch and even Refn and Kubrick is a little more assured). He paints the face of his hapless hipster art teacher until he resembles a Magritte. It’s a nakedly show-offy gesture by both the character Bronson and Refn but unlike, say Quentin Tarentino, neither man relishes in their creation in the same way. If we compare this to Brad Pitt’s “This might be my masterpiece” line that closes Tarentino’s masturbatory (though fun) Inglourious Basterds, Refn emerges the more thoughtful and less arrogant auteur. Tarentino may not actually believe his movie is his finest achievement to date, but the implication is right there in the dialogue and I choose to believe he does. After all, the man hasn’t made a film that doesn’t feel like it was written with action figures in over ten years. Refn takes a slightly different tack. He concludes his most stylish film to date with his most stylish gesture to date and Bronson admits that the painting was simply one part of him, something he was encouraged to do by the art teacher whose face he paints. This isn’t all that Bronson has in him, like the film itself in relation to its creator, it was something that simply needed to be done. Is Bronson the best film Refn’s ever done? Well it certainly isn’t from a narrative standpoint, but this was not the point of Bronson, as I’ve illustrated. So just after we take a moment to see that this was an exercise, Hardy turns off the artistry, screams, “alright, he’s had enough,” and lets the guards rush him with batons and riot gear. 'He' is also us. Enough artistry for artistry’s sake (that is to say a gesture out of context, something that is brilliant, sure, but says nothing of the film's theme), let’s do what we do best. The guards swarm in; Bronson, dressed in black paint, waits at the bottom of a staircase (that great cinematic symbol of absolutely anything the filmmaker/critic wishes) and then 'the man' charges at him. He loses the fight, so does Refn; his film isn’t being hailed as anything other than a stylish Clockwork Orange disciple. The establishment, I feel fine saying, is wrong in this case. You cannot keep Bronson down, you cannot help but love Hardy’s performance and any punk with a head on his shoulders should be able to see what a gorgeous and truly awesome piece of art Bronson is; better, I feel, than Clockwork.
A final point. When the film premiered in the UK, Refn had recorded Charlie Bronson himself saying that he endorsed the film because it immortalized him; he was sorry, sure, but he got what he wanted so he wasn’t exactly repentant either. Refn’s recording of the voice of his inspiration (illegal in the UK as the man still sits in HMP Wakefield) points out that Refn believes in his work in a way that Kubrick did not. Take the final (ok, one's penultimate) scenes of each film. In Clockwork the speakers are rolled in and we get a fantasy of rape and violence in Alex’s mind, his urges restored. Refn has the speakers brought in by armed guards to show that Bronson is still a dangerous criminal and he hasn’t changed because he hasn’t needed to. Society cannot force him to be complacent and any attempt to do so is both futile and unjust. If his painted face and Lennon-like sunglasses are any indication, he is an artist of the violent, his body one glorious muscle, his final act in the film is to take the powers that be in hand and go down fighting. Alex cannot fight at the end of the film; he’s been rendered immobile and is a tool of the system, even if internally he’s won his own battle (the book’s ending is not in total harmony with the film’s ending). Refn’s style and his apocalyptic worldview cannot be contained in a hospital bed; they need to be put in a cage like Bronson in order to be stopped (not that I want that). So what does this mean? Well, despite the film’s similarities I don’t think of Bronson as imitation or even homage, I think of it as Clockwork the film done right. All the mistakes, every dull frame of Kubrick's film, have been corrected and the film does right by the hero and sticks to its guns (pun intended). Bronson feels like a schizophrenic diary read happily by its owner, Clockwork feels like someone not up to the task wheedling the truth out of someone it pities. In the end Bronson may be the more sadistic of the two but it also has the benefit of being released at a time when it has none of the power that Clockwork had. It has nothing or no one to fight with, which is a shame because I think Refn and Hardy could tackle the censorship board easy. I think Bronson won’t be seen as the superior or the more bold film but I believe it is both as it removes all but the faintest of morals from the script, leaving much more up to you to decipher rather than to have Bronson say “I learned my lesson well”. There’s no need for it. Clockwork was openly political but it got both its politics and its memorable dialogue from Burgess. Bronson speaks for itself eloquently and is the sort of gorgeous freakshow I live to see. Real horrorshow.