It’s always strange to write criticism about something that is linked irrevocably to someone else’s life. Yet Bronson is one of those films that it’s nearly impossible to watch without the strong urge to write about, or at least to discuss at length. Bronson’s life, and the film that celebrates it, is one giant convergence of violence and art.
Before I delve into the film itself, it’s important to tackle the question of biography: Who is Charles Bronson?
Born Michael Peterson, Bronson is the United Kingdom’s most violent criminal. At the time the film was created, he had been in prison for 34 years and spent most of those years in solitary confinement. He was originally imprisoned in 1974 for armed robbery of a post office. His original prison sentence was for 7 years, but because of his violent outbursts, subsequent years were added to his sentence. Michael Peterson changed his name to Charles Bronson to better suit his reputation as a fighter.
While in prison, Bronson developed two dramatic patterns. First, when the fights got too boring, he began to take hostages and demand ridiculous ransoms. Famously, he took three prisoners hostage and forced them to call him “General.” He then demanded a plane to take him to Cuba, two Uzi sub-machine guns, 5,000 rounds of ammunition, and an axe. Charles Bronson has also published books on physical fitness, and is well known for his cartoons and artwork.
Bronson isn’t a plot-heavy film. Instead, director Nicolas Winding Refn focuses primarily on Bronson’s relationship to art, and his transformation as an artist. This is largely what makes the film work. If it were simply a biopic about a violent prisoner, it would be one of those really serious (and really boring) Oscar dramas. Instead, the director makes the film interesting by borrowing stylistically from independent films from the 40s and 50s, with avant-garde aesthetics. The first shot of the film is of Bronson looking straight at the camera, with a black background. After two lines, the camera cuts to Bronson’s back, and we see he’s on stage with an audience in front of him.
This sets the film immediately apart from the typical prison genre. The theme of performance and artistic transformation pervades throughout the film, as you are shuffled back and forth between watching “memories” from his life and watching Bronson the performer telling his story. Bronson’s inner monologue is portrayed as a sort of comic vaudevillian character, but his words strike an awkward chord – there’s an extremely dark humor to them, and the viewer isn’t sure whether to cringe or laugh. You get the feeling that you’re not supposed to be watching events as they happen, but rather events that have been stylized to fit the Bronson mythos.
What is particularly interesting about this film is the way that gender is presented. In the director’s own words, it’s a very feminine film on a very masculine topic. It’s shot very artistically, and appears more sensitive than a typical action/prison movie would be. Instead, Bronson’s artistic tendencies and his performance are emphasized. Even though his performance is filled with violence, at certain points it seems like some kind of avant-garde installation piece gone wrong. This feeling of “art-for-art’s sake” pervades the film, as Bronson turns his cooped up energy to artwork instead of violence.
You could almost say that Bronson reads as a tongue-in-cheek critique of masculinity. Bronson is a hyper-masculine character, and because of this masculinity he isn’t able to function in society. There are two major characters that become authority figures over Bronson that appear characterized as very specifically gay. At one point during negotiations, Bronson’s boxing leader says, “Let’s fuck,” and Bronson replies, “That’s what I’m here to do.”
Bronson shows the femininity inherent within masculinity, not the full spectrum of gender. Most of the male characters are at least distinct, if not well-developed. The female characters, on the other hand, are almost interchangeable. Out of the three women in the film, the only one who stands out in memory is Bronson’s mother, and that’s purely situational. The two women that Bronson gets involved with are almost indistinct, to the point where I thought they were the same person the first time I watched the film. Their identities meld because of their age. They appear almost as blank slates, as opposed to the great variety of masculinity the film showcases.
Even though the film is about Bronson’s transformation as an artist, which is a fairly personal subject, the viewer never really gets to know the man or his motivations. It’s never really known if Bronson is a genius or a madman. Ultimately, this film is more about the art of making an interesting movie out of the life of a criminal-performer than it is about portraying any sort of reality of the person.
The film doesn’t follow Bronson’s life to the present. It stops right as his violent hostage-taking and artwork collide. It seems almost as if both the hostage-taking and the artwork is a way that Bronson is able to exert control over his world. The final scene of the film shows how violence and art blend, with Bronson taking control over his own world. This is why Bronson doesn’t want to leave prison. He understands his role in prison, and he can bring other people into his self-created, self-contained world.
Bronson is a great movie, but not one to be watched lightly. If what you’re looking for is a simple action movie, this isn’t for you. But if you want to be aesthetically stimulated, have a film-kink for avant-garde, or just want to be a little uncomfortable, Bronson is the perfect movie for your Friday night.
Abbie Plouff 11/16/11