The art of violence in Bronson (2008).

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.


Under 800: Drive (2011)

There appears to be an unspoken consensus that action movies are supposed to be low-brow summer flicks that offer cheap thrills and excitement without being anything to write home about when it comes to the technicalities of film making and story telling. But for every twenty or so new entries in a redundant franchise like The Fast and the Furious, there is one movie that pushes the envelope and delivers something that is actually worth more than a cursory glance.

One such movie is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. It’s a slick action-noir story that follows Ryan Gosling’s unnamed character (who I shall henceforth refer to as the Driver for clarity’s sake) in his quest for… well, nothing, really. Drive is an interesting beast in that it offers very little in terms of backstory or characterization when it comes to the protagonist, while still turning him into someone the viewer can root for and sympathize with. He’s a deeply cautious and introverted man who seems to share Neil McCauley’s philosophy in Heat – never get attached to anything you can’t walk out on in 5 seconds’ time once push comes to shove. His face is an emotionless mask that manages to appear both awkward and intimidating at the same time thanks to Gosling’s amazing performance. The Driver’s sullen silences prompt his interlocutors to talk more than they usually would, and while this could’ve easily resulted in a series of expository monologues that would’ve taken away from the movie’s atmosphere and understated presentation, not once does any of the information we are fed feel forced or out of place. 

The story itself is nothing spectacular. Sure, it’s quite a bit darker than your run of the mill action flick, but it isn’t particularly complex or hard to understand. What’s interesting about it is that it offers a cyclical sort of development for the main character. The Driver goes through three distinct phases: first, we see him as a cool-headed getaway driver with a stoic complexion and nerves of steel; then he falls in love with his neighbor, Irene, and his budding relationship with her and her son Benicio takes him on a journey towards something resembling a normal life; and in the third act of the movie we find the Driver back where he was in the beginning, except now he’s filled with a lust for vengeance and violence. There is no redemption for the main character in Drive. The Driver ends up in an even darker spot than he once was, a sort of existential hero that has once again fallen out of love with life and realized that meaning cannot be derived from anything worldly.

Script aside, possibly the most exciting part of Drive are its visuals, which is unsurprising, considering it’s a prime example of the so-called arthouse action film genre that was spawned by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in 1954. The lighting is practically a character of its own in this movie, it parallels the Driver’s internal struggle and reflects his choices. The elevator scene is a prime example of this. The shadows change position as the Driver switches between the reality he wants to achieve and exist in, in which he is with Irene and nothing else matters, and the one that he is presented with and is forced to deal with, in which he has to fight for his life and be as brutal and unforgiving as possible. There are countless examples of brilliant lighting tricks in this movie, and their effects are enhanced even further by the consistently interesting framing of the shots. There are other techniques used as well, the type you usually see in foreign movies nowadays, which aren’t exactly central to the story but all add up to make the gloomy atmosphere as enveloping and crushing as possible. One of them is the Vertigo effect, as the Driver looks out at the city from his apartment. The foreground remains stable but the city itself seems to shift further away, its size changes and morphs ever so slightly, just enough to make the viewer completely cognizant of its slow retreat. It’s a form of perspective distortion that works remarkably well when used in the appropriate moment and to the appropriate degree.

Overall, I believe Drive to be one of the best action movies ever made. I do have a few minor nitpicks, like the nauseatingly annoying vocals in some parts of the soundtrack and the admittedly lacking story, but they just aren’t enough to eclipse the movie’s great technical and visual efforts. The car chases are as intense and gritty as they come and their influence on movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Baby Driver is obvious. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the most important thing about a movie that doesn’t set out to be a huge box office hit? To push the boundaries of its genre and ask of us, as viewers, to pay a little more attention to the smaller, more subtle beauties that the medium can offer? I believe that to be the case, and Drive does it in style.