Thursday, October 08, 2009

Six Shooter: Bronson

Michael Peterson is an inconvenient man. A cause célèbre for many, he has spent most of the last thirty-four years behind bars, largely in solitary confinement, despite having been originally arrested for relatively minor crimes. However, he is also an exceptionally violent person, who after adopting the “Charles Bronson” persona inspired by the Death Wish movie-star, seems to prefer the brutality of prison life in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly idiosyncratic Bronson (trailer here), the first installment of Magnet’s second Six-Shooter series of international genre films, which opens in New York tomorrow.

Peterson/Bronson was originally sentenced to seven years for an armed robbery that yielded just over twenty-seven pounds. Once in prison though, he discovered he was in his element. During a brief period of liberty, he fought in the underground boxing circuit, where even his unsavory manager found him a little off. While incarcerated, “Bronson” became a published poet and artist, leading many to call for his release, even though the notorious inmate once held his liberal do-gooder art teacher hostage for nearly two full days. After all, he never actually hurt the man they hasten to point out.

Bronson’s outsider art might be oddly compelling, but in Refn’s film, prison is his real canvas, where he stages elaborate acts of violence as if they were performance art. These always seem to culminate with Bronson stripping down to his altogether and tooling on the skulls of the sad sack prison guards sent to subdue him. Though certified legally sane, it frankly seems like the state had the right idea when they stashed Bronson in a loony bin, zonked out on tranks.

Refn and co-writer Brock Norman Brock do not supply any easy explanations for Bronson’s anti-social behavior. His parents seem relatively unremarkable, yet even as a child Bronson was spoiling for a fight. Granted, a girlfriend’s rejection spurs the crime that led to his second extended stretch in prison, but it really just seems to underscore how ill-suited Bronson is for life in the outside world.

Those expecting Bronson to be a grittily realistic prison drama will be a bit surprised by Refn’s highly-stylized approach, featuring surreal vaudeville-like interludes accompanied by voice-overs written by Bronson himself. However, Tom Hardy creates a singularly fascinating screen character in Bronson, combining the calculating savagery of Hannibal Lector with the showmanship of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury (whom the mustachioed Hardy somewhat resembles here).

Bronson is a violent, frequently disorienting film, but it is never dull. Ironically, though Hardy’s remarkable portrayal endows Bronson with a certain snake-like charm, it may well convince viewers he should be looked away for life, perhaps in contradiction of the filmmakers’ original intentions. It opens tomorrow (10/9) at the Angelika.