(This review originally appeared on GreenCine Daily as part of Sundance coverage.)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
2008, 92 minutes, United Kingdom
Ferraris are meant to accelerate from 0 to 60mph within seconds, not movies. But someone forgot to tell that to Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher Trilogy, Fear X) regarding this powerful and rigorously stylish tragicomedy, which builds to a primal scream during a bravura opening sequence (revamping Oldboy's one-man-army hallway scroll with mosh-pit intimacy), then maintains the intensity, with bleak humor and unexpected pathos, for an hour and a half. Based on the sensational milestones in the "career" of Britain's most violent prisoner, Charles Bronson (née Michael Gordon Peterson; named after the Death Wish star by a bareknuckle boxing promoter), the film breezes through the middle-class upbringing of a man who -- in 1974, at the age of 19 -- botched an armed robbery and was given seven years in the slammer, a sentence that has since been lengthened several times over based upon his penchant for starting prison fights and large-scale riots. In reality, he has lived 30 of the last 34 years in solitary confinement.
With his shaved head, impressively twirled moustache and barrel-chested swagger, British actor Tom Hardy (unrecognizably bulked up after roles in RockNRolla and Layer Cake) gives an extremely physical juggernaut of a performance as Bronson, looking like a 19th century circus strongman if not for that devilish, shit-eating grin. (For better or worse, Bronson is an even more entertaining screen sociopath than Eric Bana's Chopper.) The film's kneejerk comparison could be A Clockwork Orange meets All That Jazz, if the many Kubrickian tableaux, long fades, Wagner and Verdi soundtrack, and "bit of the ol' ultraviolence" justified the former. The latter comparison is entirely our anti-hero's doing: even behind bars, where most of the film takes place, Bronson escapes into a theater of his own self-mythologizing mind, directly addressing the camera and an auditorium full of people in burlesque stage makeup.
Though he's never killed anyone, he causes two-fisted trouble as a way to gain fame; he even sees himself as a comedian, and it's here that Refn's (and co-writer Brock Norman Brock's) script gets tricky. The deification of brutal acts from a disturbed man's point of view are compartmentalized with great detachment (since an audience certainly couldn't condone what he does), yet the film is bravely dedicated to portraying the events on Bronson's terms. When a team of guards haul him away overhead from his latest escapade, we're to see the exodus as exhilaration: this is like crowdsurfing to him! Not so much about the sickness of celebrity culture, the point of the film -- which I'm predicting now will have some critics seeing red -- is that Bronson is a troubled artist without a proper outlet to vent.
This manifests in several ways, including actual illustration, as an art teacher in prison helps him to release some demons with paint instead of the blood of others. (The artwork in the film is actually the real Bronson's, some of which can be seen here.) When it's not nihilistically goofy (the mental-institution dance party is a hell of a left-field chuckle), it's a mighty tough film, both on its surface and in its over-the-top formalist ambitions. Without much contrast in the constantly visceral, throttling experience before the closing credits finally allow us to breathe normally again, it's bound to become as Bronson believes himself to be: misunderstood.
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