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IFFBoston 2009: Bronson

“You pissed on a gypsy in the middle of fucking nowhere.  You’re not exactly a big ticket.”–Paul

The third and, unfortunately, final film I caught at the Independent Film Festival Boston was the surreal and audacious prison film, Bronson.   Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the film stars Tom Hardy as the most violent criminal in Britain.  Sentenced to seven years for a minor theft at a post office, his sentence ends up stretching out to 36 years behind bars, 30 of which is spent in solitary confinement.  The majority of the film is spent in prison with Bronson, with the exception of his brief period of parole before he’s thrown back in jail, as he seems to threaten or attempt to assault every single person and authority figure he comes into contact with.

First thing’s first.  Tom Hardy is absolutely stunning in this movie.  If nothing else, his performance will stay with you.  Watch him closely and he’ll go from darkly funny to disturbed ranting to furious anger to silent niceties in a matter of just seconds.  Watching him as other characters talk is a treat as he gives the character of Bronson a real twitchy energy.  As if every moment he’s not fighting, he’s considering fighting or trying to stack the odds in his mind.  Every moment that Hardy is on screen, which is pretty much the vast majority of the film, it is just a perverse delight seeing him bring this completely damaged human being into such a complete form.

The film uses Bronson on stage in clown makeup performing and monologuing to an audience of people in suits and gowns as he tells his story and philosophies on life.  Bronson goes on and on about his passion for just fighting and fighting.  He speaks, almost eloquently at points, but the way the character truly expresses himself throughout is through his fighting.  If he’s not tearing through a legion of prison guards or punching in on old gypsies, he seems to be completely uncomfortable in his surroundings.  He is unable to express his violent rage until he forces himself to assault one of the other inmates and then he bursts back alive again

Bronson is not a pleasant film to sit through in that the director truly takes you within the sick, twisted mind of Charles Bronson.  Not just with his antics of insanity on stage but with the way the camera moves around the prison walls and frames things just so.  It’s an amazingly visual movie for something that spends a large amount of its time in incredibly drab environments.  It’s an incredibly visual film showcasing the deranged mind of Bronson and provides almost a perfect synergy with Bronson’s violent use of self expression.  But in that lies the complexities of the film.  The man we follow throughout is despicable and yet the audience somehow is able to form a kind of sick, twisted liking for the man.

In fact, there is no sense of remorse and guilt from Bronson.  He is not a sympathetic character to identify with or to root for.  His violent attributes are basically what he is.  When he gets paroled and his parents come to pick him up, it’s as if he’s being picked up from university after a grueling semester.  Which for him, in a way, is exactly as he sees his prison time, as training for just more fighting.  He enters his house and his room as everything’s changed around him and there is that sense of a child just coming back home, which is altogether frightening and a fascinating deeper look into the mental facilities of his character.

He sees every step of his life as just a natural part of his growth and training as, well, it’s hard to say what he’s really building up for.  He eventually goes back to his hometown of Luton and hooks up with an old fellow inmate who helps manages him as he fights dirty hobos in underground clubs.  But even this little haphazard life he’s built for himself is thrown away with little care when he does another petty theft and is thrown right back into the slammer.

Throughout the film, he constantly throws himself into fights he knows he can’t possibly win but that’s never the point of the film.  In the end, it’s his only outlet of expressing his rage at a system that’s failed him.  Whether that be the prison system or society in general, it’s hard to say.  But it never seems to be pure rage that drives him nor pure enjoyment.  It’s an odd mix that makes him such a fascinating character and that Hardy is able to mix these two in just the slight changes in his face is a testament to the absolute strength of his performance.  The music throughout the film also gives a great accompaniment to the incredibly dynamic visuals with a wonderful mix of operatic, classical music juxtaposing the brutality of the fight scenes and the 80s Euro techno pop that pops through now and again throughout the film

At the end, when he decides not to assault his art teacher but rather to paint and draw on the man, it becomes clear that the film almost plays as a kind of performance art piece.  He fights as a crazed brawler but the scenes are shot in such a way as to put a kind of twisted beauty to them.  I can’t help but think on the very first scene in the film where he stands in his darkened cage with total blackness all around him except for a bright red light that illuminates him within his cage.  He dances on his fight punching in the air and then prepares himself as the guards come in to release him.  And then he just goes.  He charges through punching one guard then tackling another.  This is a man in his essence.  This scene is probably the most pure picture of the man Bronson and completely prepares you for the kind of jolt the rest of the movie plays as.  It’s a movie that truly gives you and experience and really makes you feel every moment.   It’s a stylish tour de force that you can’t wait to escape from but thanks to a dynamic visual style and a revelatory performance by Tom Hardy, will stay with you for a long while afterwards.

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