This week’s movie recommendation is one of Tom Hardy’s first significant lead performance, which showcased both his commanding physical presence and his captivating acting prowess. Hardy plays the lead in Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylization of the true life of Michael Peterson, a man notorious for terrorizing English prisons for over three decades. During that time, Peterson transformed himself into an alter ego, the titular Bronson (2008).
The film tells Peterson’s biography, such as it is. A youthful aspiration to make something of himself induces a young Peterson to rob a post office. Perhaps he might have aimed a little higher, or maybe he set his sights just right; given his eagerness to commence the seven-year sentence he earns for the robbery, it’s hard to know if it wasn’t part of his plan all along. Once his residence in prison begins it’s not long before Peterson finds opportunities to force the authorities to extend his sentence (at the time of the film’s release, it was 34 years; it’s now going on 40).
He has intermittent—albeit short-lived—periods of release that seem to go far worse for him than his periods of confinement. When a brief stint as a prize-fighter doesn’t garner him the instant acclaim he’d expected, his manager reminds him of the rules of showmanship: “You just pissed on a gipsy in the middle of a field, darling. It’s hardly the big ticket.”
However, the moments during and between Peterson’s prison sentences are second fiddle to his descent into the titular character Charlie Bronson. In Bronson, he assumes the persona not only of someone with a reputation for violence, but also for performativity. This provides the most distinctive feature of the film: the bulk of the exposition is delivered to an audience sat in a theater while Peterson, who’s dressed in a tuxedo and made-up to look like a pantomime, captivates their attention with tales of his bravura. It is from start to finish a recognizably theatrical film. That’s clear not merely from the set design and method of Peterson’s exposition, but also from Hardy’s performance. His delivery is just as much vocal as it is physical: he switches from mellifluous monotones to braying shouts and from sweet smiles to grotesque scowls, always without the barest hint of warning.
The stylization purchases some things for our storyteller at the expense of others. While his embellishments add flair and capture our imagination, his remains a story of misdirection and self-serving egotism. Neither can we believe, as he would have us do, that he was once released from prison onto the streets simply because the prison system ‘didn’t know what to do with him any longer.’ Nor can we dismiss altogether his frustrations at people’s inability to understand his motivations. All that misdirection amounts to a pretty frustrating conclusion: the film ends and we remain none the wiser about who Michael Peterson is, or why he acts the way he does. More than an hour and a half of Peterson musing about the formative moments of his upbringing is about as instructive for us as his time in prison has been for him.
This may not be entirely without meaning, though. We play a similar role for Peterson as his friendly art teacher who he’s content to use either as a member of his audience or a prop in his performance, depending on his fancy. As long as he gets to put on a show, the rest may just be immaterial. Bronson is therefore an unusual prison film. It isn’t an indictment of the criminal justice system (although its musings about the way inmates are chemically lobotomized may be interpreted as such), nor is it a reflection on the consequences of a ‘broken home’ (Peterson actually comes from a loving and sweet Bedfordshire family, and he admits the blame for his violence falls squarely—and proudly—on himself), nor is it even a film about some kind of evil incarnate (Peterson unquestionably has some very sweet moments). Instead, the audience members are wrested into being participants in Peterson’s show, and we aggrandize his project merely for indulging him in performing it. The joke, very firmly, is on us.