Nicholas Winding Refn has a knack for designing brutality. The Danish filmmaker’s “Pusher” trilogy scrutinized the psychotic intensity of the country’s underground crime world. With his latest feature, “Bronson,” Refn condenses the selfsame psychotic intensity into a single, unstoppable expression of rage. Loosely based on the memoirs of relentlessly violent British prisoner Charlie Bronson — née Michael Petersen — the movie eschews linear storytelling for a peek inside the reasoning of the belligerent man, whose life goals revolve around engaging his captors in constant battle. Despite Petersen’s brutal tendencies, he actually grows likable (if not a complete object of sympathy) due to Refn’s vibrant, multilayered style, in addition to Tom Hardy’s maniacal lead performance.
“Britain’s most expensive prisoner,” Petersen has been transferred to a number of holding facilities, but none seem fully capable of containing his ferocity. Refn takes this basic outline and spreads it across a lively and disturbing canvas of color and sound. The director claims to have lifted much of the movie’s sheen from the experimental work of Kenneth Anger, but he could just as well borrow from Dante’s Inferno and reach similar results. Seemingly with ease, Refn turns the darkness into a running source of humor: Because “Bronson” is narrated by its pugnacious anti-hero, it adopts a playful naughtiness throughout.
Decked out in theatrical make-up and addressing a non-existent audience in his mental stage play, Petersen recounts his combative youth and the thieving disposition that originally landed him in the slammer. From there, it’s love at first sight. Prison allows Petersen to unleash the full nature of his brutal disposition. Hardy turns in a chilling performance reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange,” but with more emphasis on the character’s passion for ultraviolence. Unlike Alex and his merry band of droogs, Petersen isn’t just fucking around. He seriously cares about constantly asserting his power, even when he’s out of prison and making money as a fighter. As Bronson, his self-described alter-ego, Petersen transforms into a beastly deity in scene after scene. The situation becomes complicated when he discovers that his militant drive fills him with creative inspiration.
Although most of “Bronson” takes place in jail cells and asylums, Refn injects a dynamic visual expressionism into nearly every frame. Petersen’s imaginary one-man show stands out for allowing Hardy to display his full range of abilities. He roars with laughter, blurts out incoherent observations and engages in jarring dialogue with himself. These energetic interstitial moments allow us to follow Petersen’s disconnected thought process, underlining the sheer fury with which he makes decisions. At one point, Refn even employs animation to illustrate the images flying through Petersen’s undomesticated mind.
For all the cinematic trickery, however, the narrative thrust of “Bronson” teeters off fairly fast. After his third (or is it his fourth?) incarceration, Petersen doesn’t appear likely to do anything he hasn’t done before. Such redundancy keeps the movie from having particularly large ambitions, but as a character study, it approaches the level of a masterpiece. Refn has successfully created a movie where the bad guy is the whole show.
At the Q&A following the movie’s Sundance premiere on Monday night, Refn noted that he would like to direct a Hollywood production. The audience laughed. “I’m not kidding,” he added, with equal doses of a promise and a threat. A crazed visionary of Refn’s caliber could potentially elevate the quality of conventional studio-funded genre movies — or simply bludgeon them into unfamiliar pulp. Bring it on.