Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson is 92 minutes of pure rage. There’s no rhyme or reason to Charles Bronson’s actions. He’s the most notorious and violent prisoner in the history of Britain, despite never having actually killed anyone. There doesn’t seem to be any contempt for his fellow man in his behavior. Bronson simply fights for the heck of it. He wasn’t raised poor, his parents in the movie were fairly well-off and in real life they were mayor and mayoress of his home town. There’s no rebellion against an unjust system, no attempt to escape attempts at subjugation or indoctrination, poverty or systematic discrimination. There is quite literally no reason for Bronson to be the way he is. And yet he exists, both in the film and in modern day England.
There are a few possible explanations for Charles Bronson’s seemingly (and most likely truly) insane actions. The most obvious and succinct one is that Bronson is simply a masochist and enjoys getting smashed to a pulp over and over again. Another is that he suffers from a severe mental illness. But I’d like to present an alternative view, one that is based more in interpretation than original intention and shouldn’t be considered as an attempt to legitimize Bronson’s violent behavior, but rather to rationalize it and use it as a means to explore questions that quite possibly haven’t even entered his head at any point in his life. Also, the following thoughts shall be based mostly on the film, so bear in mind that they might slightly misrepresent Bronson’s current image and attitude, as he seems to have mellowed over the past few years.
The one recognizable emotion that Bronson, portrayed masterfully by Tom Hardy in one of his career best performance, expresses is his distaste for mental facilities. Why would that be? Because there he can be subdued. He is tranquilized and spends a large chunk of his time there in an immobilized state that does not permit him to do the one thing he does best. It’s that one thing, fighting, that gives him agency over his life. In a sense, one could see Bronson’s constant indulging in short bouts of fisticuffs against numerous foes as an expression of freedom, of his ability to choose when and how hard to be walloped. In prison, everything is fairly simple – the hierarchy is clear, as are Bronson’s foes. He knows who’s going to give him the best beating, and he knows exactly how to ask for it. His biggest joy is being able to strike back and knock a few teeth out. The people he holds hostage are merely catnip, a way to attract more attention and thus, more guards to hit.
Furthermore, Bronson isn’t a man focused on the material. His only possessions are practical, like butter to cover himself in to make it harder to for his opponents to grasp. He’s seen escaping to the rooftop of one of the prisons he’s kept in, not in an effort to leave the facility and start anew, but to destroy property and cause damage.
There is no growth, no character arc. Bronson simply is. Towards the end, we see him practicing his painting skills and becoming close with a member of staff in the prison who helps those incarcerated to find the beauty in art. The viewer is left, even if only for a while, under the impression that Bronson is rediscovering himself, that there might be hope for him yet to be reintegrated into civil society. But what does Bronson do once the warden notices his interest in painting and begins making plans for his future? Bronson once again rears his animalistic side, the one that is ever present, and destroys everything in the final showdown between him and the guards in the movie. Does he achieve anything? Not really. He gets to paint a clown mask on a man’s face while listening to classical music. Then he hits some people over the head and causes a bit of a ruckus. It’s not grand. It’s not some overarching philosophical achievement that advances him as a person. It’s just a man doing what he does best, doing what he enjoys. Incidentally, that turns him into a celebrity among the British prison population, and Bronson seems to enjoy that. He, like every man, enjoys recognition and appreciation for his work, if you could call it that. It’s all very basic, very reminiscent of primitive societies that saw violence and physical strength as a sign of spiritual freedom and a basis for respect. And fame and recognition are two things that Charles Bronson seems to enjoy – he’d rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
What Bronson does to assert his freedom of the spirit and will is abhorrent to most, and justly so, but it’s an extreme response to a feeling that everyone experiences. That creeping sense of worthlessness that comes whenever we realize that we have no effect over whatever is going in our lives or in the world in general. It’s an idea that’s been explored in many great films over the years as well. Taxi Driver, Fight Club, Brazil, as well as many others, explore this lack of individual agency from different angles, but fundamentally it all boils down to the same feeling of insignificance in a world that is moving on and growing ever smaller in the distance as the protagonist watches it with despair and disappointment in their heart. The difference is that Bronson doesn’t justify its main character’s actions, it doesn’t rationalize his behavior or glorify him. Refn doesn’t give us much backstory or motivation for Bronson’s current attitude towards the world, but simply presents the man as he is and lets the viewer decide what to make of him.
The movie itself is very well made. It walks the thin line between indie arthouse and action-fuelled romp, and it keeps the balance thanks to its levity and good direction. The editing is great, combining a more subdued take on transition and visual imagery with what I can only describe as the old English gangster movie style that emerged in the 80s and was mainly popularized later on by the likes of Guy Ritchie, with flashy cuts, matching or fading transitions and constant narration that adds an extra layer of entertainment. The action scenes are decently choreographed, though at times it’s a bit too easy to tell just how far Tom Hardy’s knuckle stopped from his fellow actor’s body, making the punches feel floaty and weightless, thus causing the fight to lose traction. And, last but not least, Tom Hardy delivers a phenomenal performance which alone makes the movie a must-see. Hardy switches effortlessly between schizophrenic stage performance based loosely in classical acting and more modern method acting that he prepared for with the help of Charles Bronson himself. A truly masterful display that cements his place as one of the greats of our generation.