This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, I picked “Bronson.”
The Movie: “Bronson”
Starring: Tom Hardy, Kelly Adams, Luing Andrews
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A young man who was sentenced to seven years in prison for robbing a post office ends up spending three decades in solitary confinement. During this time, his own personality is supplanted by his alter-ego, Charles Bronson..
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 73 percent
Froemming: Last week, Brown took a figurative dump in the cinematic pool of the JOE-DOWN with his choice of “Can’t Hardly Wait.” I could have gone out of my way to get revenge, but I simply could not sit through another terrible movie.
So this week, I decided to hit two genres we really haven’t tackled yet: Biopic and independent film. So I picked the film that would start Tom Hardy down a path of roles that would require him to have weird crap on his face. Yes, I picked 2008’s “Bronson,” an artsy film that chronicles the life of Britain’s most infamous prisoner, Michael Gordon Peterson, AKA Charles Bronson.
But before we get into this very strange — yet what I thought was a pretty amazing performance on Hardy’s part — Brown, what were your thoughts going in and how did they change as the film proceeded?
Brown: Before I can talk “Bronson,” I have one question that needs to be addressed:
I could listen to that song all day.
Now, it’s been close to a day since I watched “Bronson” and I can certainly say the movie is fascinating. I’m not sure if it is either in a “Wow” sort of way or a “What the (REDACTED) am I watching” sort of way. In either case, it’s a fantastic job by Tom Hardy as he dives head-first in this role. Just… just a bonkers movie.
With that said, lead us through this insanity, Froemming.
Froemming: I saw this a few years ago, and I was in the same boat you were. Because, let’s face it, this film was not what I was expecting when I read the synopsis on Netflix. Then when I rewatched this for the JOE-DOWN, I realized this would be one of the more difficult ones for us to review, because of how strange it is.
OK, this film is basically Charley Bronson telling his life story in his head, with a faceless audience watching on as he tells his story — complete with clown makeup, vaudeville joking and whatnot — in a one-man show on acid, which is the only way I can properly explain it.
So, we are first shown his early life as a troublemaking child with a very protective mother who seems to excuse his pretty terrible behavior, all the way up to when he is first sent to jail for robbing a post office — which leads him from a seven-year sentence to a 30-plus year stint, for the most part, because of all the trouble he starts while inside.
Brown: Considering the strangeness of this movie, it may be a tad bit hard to recall everything. I was so sucked in by Hardy’s portrayal of Peterson/Bronson that it may be the least amount of notes I’ve taken for a movie.
The best way I can describe Bronson in this movie: Pure id. He doesn’t put much thought into his decisions, he just takes a course of action, which is usually the most violent route to take.
Now, he says at one point to the audience that he “Didn’t do anything bad. Not bad bad.” Umm, Charley, you assaulted a teacher as a teen, you are shown beating throngs of prison guards and, this is what led you to prison, you robbed a post office with a sawed-off shotgun. Bro, you are bad bad. You just don’t care about consequences because, frankly, you get off on chaos.
Froemming: Yeah, the times he kind of tries to justify his actions, it really doesn’t sell it to the audience. Now, here is another aspect of the film I thought was interesting: At no point does the filmmaker try to make Bronson a sympathetic character. Sure, his demented humor is entertaining and the more humorous parts are pure black comedy, but there is no trying to justify what motivates this man. He is basically a scumbag, a very charismatic scumbag, but at no point did I feel he didn’t deserve what happened to him.
Brown: He’s motivated by fame. He is known as Britain’s most notorious criminal, which certainly gains him a degree of infamy, even if it’s with a niche audience. It’s in a way like an underground band: The people he’s around and deal with think of him as a legend. And he’s making his name on his terms, no matter how utterly insane it is.
I thought I’d hate it when I watched the movie, but I was captivated by the stage scenes to show Bronson’s utter madness and selling that point that he needs to live on the edge in order to live. When he gets shipped off to the mental institution, which we’ll get to momentarily, he gets some of that edge taken away and it drives him even more batty.
Froemming: Once he is getting used to what he calls his “hotel room” (his prison cell), he begins reigning chaos upon the prison he is in. Fighting the guards to the point the prison no longer wants to deal with him. So, they send him off to a mental hospital, which pisses him off right away because he loved that hotel room as much as Travolta loved the mechanical bull in “Urban Cowboy.”
And the hospital isn’t in the business of bare-knuckle boxing with its patients, so they dope Bronson up on drugs to keep him from harming anyone. And he literally becomes a prisoner in his own body, which drives him even more nuts.
Brown: Right. Instead of a life where he’s just as battered and bloodied as the people he assaults in prison, the institution will just subdue him with a needle. That adrenaline rush is gone. That edge that Bronson thrives in is no longer there, and he may as well be a zombie in that role, complete with drooling and walking around aimlessly in the commons.
I thought this movie was going to be one of those “Bronson’s not mad, everyone else is mad,” type of films. But no, Bronson is clearly insane and people don’t get his motivation. Because his motivation of aggression and anarchy is so out there, it’s a shock anyone comprehends it.
Froemming: As an aside, I remember when I heard Hardy was cast as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” and was utterly baffled because every photo I had seen of him, he was not a very intimidating presence. I saw this after I saw “DKR” and realized: Yup, I totally get it now. Hardy transformed into a muscle monster for this film. There were times I felt bad for the people who had to try and keep this monster down.
Brown: I’m a little surprised Hardy wasn’t jacked for this role. That bald head and mustache begged for a man who would lift a lot of triangular weights like a 20’s strongman.
So now we are at a point which frightened me the most: Bronson returning to civilian life. I don’t want to say that the man is a ticking time bomb because that would imply that he changed before regressing to his old behavior. Bronson simply finds another outlet for it. First, with a relationship with a woman, then with bare knuckle fighting.
Froemming: His release is after two events, which surprised me: He kills an inmate at the hospital, which gets him sent to an asylum. Then he and the others at that asylum took it over in a giant, infamous riot.
Because he has become such a headache and is too expensive to keep in the prison system, they just let him out by certifying him sane. I am not sure if this was actually true, but if it was, that is frightening.
Brown: Bronson meets with his Hugh Heffner-like uncle, and in a place I can only describe as a brothel, he meets his girlfriend who is drawn to him for being a long-time prisoner. This is where I get mad because I feel like my clean record is a direct result for my dating life.
Then, Bronson meets up with a former inmate who gets him into the world of bare knuckle fighting (and that’s where he gets the Charley Bronson moniker, after the “Death Wish” actor). Quick question, Froemming: If you had the choice, what action star would you want to be named after for an alter ego? I’ll go with Harrison Ford.
Froemming: Gary Cooper.
Brown: Anyhow, outside jail bars, Bronson can finally live on the edge again, fighting one-on-one, two-on-one. He even fights a dog, which is unfathomably messed up. I compared Bronson’s violent tendencies to a fencer where it’s more about the challenge and the sport of the battle. The difference is he’s beating the hell out of anything he can, which is pretty (REDACTED) up.
Froemming: But we see living in the free world is really not for Bronson. He tries to get married, but the woman he is sleeping with already has a fiance, and she has no interest in a future with a man whose only skill is nearly beating people to death. I mean, he has money, but his way of getting an engagement ring is to knock out the guy at the jewelry shop and the threaten the cashier and stealing one. I don’t think he ever had any intention of staying on the outside.
Brown: He was free for all of 69 days, which feels… right for Bronson. And in that time, he said he was out building an empire. Wait, what? The only thing I can tell that you did was get some ugly tattoos there, pal.
And then we get to the spot in the movie where I’m reminded that I truly do not understand art.
Froemming: In my notes, the next scene is when a prison librarian comes to his cell with some books. Bronson is bored, pacing and impatient. He kidnaps the guy and starts claiming he has demands.
He has no demands. He gets flustered when asked what they are. He just wants to brawl. Like you said, he is pure id.
So he makes this poor guy, who just wanted to hand out books, lube up his naked body, because he wants to fight the guards and be real slippery, so they can’t easily grab him.
And this little scene between Bronson and the librarian, before the guards storm in, to me was hilarious. It shouldn’t be by any account, but Hardy’s performance here had me cracking up.
Brown: But somehow, after 30-plus years of being in prison, there’s still this goal of rehabilitating Bronson. So, art therapy is the next try, and the man in charge of this activity sees some sort of genius in the long-time felon. I don’t know, man. I saw the drawings of a middle-school bully or Ringo Starr’s MS Paint pictures. It’s the art of a pseudo-celebrity, so it garners interest. I… I just don’t see it. Art is above my head, I think.
Froemming: No, his art is terrible. But the teacher has to be positive about it for the rehabilitation. I also suspect that Bronson’s “celebrity” is at play here as to why the teacher is fawning over some of the crudest drawings I have ever seen. There is even a brief animated segment, and those drawings were just terrible. But it is an outlet for Bronson other than putting prison guards in the hospital and jacking up medical bills in the process.
And it seems to be briefly working for Bronson. Art is keeping him out of trouble. Until the warden snubs his art in his face by refusing to look at a piece Bronson had made for him.
You’d think after 30 years of terrorizing the prison system, these people would, you know, try and not agitate this man. But here we are.
Brown: I was completely confused when Bronson all of a sudden is looking like John Lennon with his white shirt in shades. But he’s a psycho whose only true outlet for his violence is… more violence. That and putting himself in war paint and attacking guards in riot gear. At least he’s home, because he’s too loony for crazy town and too crazy for the loony bin.
Froemming: The glasses and other things baffled me as well. But then I remembered that this story is being told to us from Bronson’s perspective, and he is probably an unreliable narrator at times. Or the director thought Hardy looked cool with the Lennon glasses. I don’t know.
But when he terrorizes the art department, it was almost like something out of the show “Hannibal” in being artsy and creepy at the same time. He turns his teacher into a living piece of art, having painted his face to look like a crude caricature of something. Looked like a bull fighter to me. Bronson, once again buck naked (Tom Hardy is naked a lot in this film) and slathered in black paint, is terrorizing everybody. But he soon gets bored with this insane art piece he has created and just demands the guards come in, so he can get his fighting on.
Bronson: Fighter, artist, fighter. He is truly bonkers.
Brown: Bronson is diverse in his oddities, I’ll say that much. And for his trouble, he gets the only sort of punishment fitting for him: Placed in a cage fit for only one person and locked behind what looks like barn doors. That’s fitting. Bronson is like a feral animal more than a human being.
Froemming: It is the only way to keep both Bronson and the guards safe. This is a man who called prison a hotel, offers only his violence to the world and has the greatest mustache I have ever seen. He will always be a danger to society.
Interesting trivia from IMDB: “Charles Bronson’s shaved off his moustache and sent it to Tom Hardy so that it could be made into a loose-moustache for Hardy to wear.”
Like any rational person would.
But the end credits state that of the 34 years he has been in prison, 30 of those have been in solitary confinement.
Brown: And if half of this movie is factual, those 30 years are well justified.
Well, we should shave our mustaches and ship them off with our review and get to recommendations.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Froemming: I would. This is a very interesting film. It is a biopic on a man who really doesn’t deserve one. It is a complex film in which subject is not complex at all. But it is engaging. Tom Hardy gives an amazing performance here. I say check it out.
Brown: If anything, watch this movie for Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bronson. He just goes for it. There is so much of this movie that’ll leave you confused and questioning if someone can be this batty. Like I said before, I didn’t have many notes because I was too mesmerized by Hardy’s performance to jot things down.