Michael Gordon Peterson—dubbed “Charles Bronson” by a bare-knuckle boxing promoter—was arrested in 1974 at age 22, and sentenced to seven years in prison for armed robbery. Since then, he’s spent all but four years of his life behind bars, both for crimes committed on the outside and for violence perpetrated on the inside. For his movie Bronson, director Nicolas Winding Refn turns Petersen’s life story into a pensive, Kubrickian study of anti-social behavior. From an opening sequence that has a naked, greased-up Tom Hardy (as Petersen) punching at a cage in slow-motion while The Walker Brothers’ art-pop classic “The Electrician” blares on the soundtrack, Bronson makes kicking ass—and waiting to kick ass—into an aesthetic all its own.
Here’s all Bronson is, really: It’s the bald, mustachioed, sturdily built Hardy raging like a bull, embodying a man who needs little provocation to beat the living crap out of guards, fellow prisoners, passersby… anybody. And then it’s him sitting utterly still, frightening everyone around with the potential for grievous bodily harm. In between all that, Hardy delivers an often-hilarious running monologue, explaining Petersen’s quest for a curious kind of stardom. The “doing crime for fame” theme is more than a little played-out, but Hardy’s so boisterous—and Refn’s filmmaking so dynamic—that it’s fairly easy to buy in to the inherent entertainment value of bloody fisticuffs.
There are times during Bronson when it’s unclear what Refn is going for, and times when the movie seems like a derivative, extra-pretentious version of A Clockwork Orange. For long stretches of Bronson, nothing much happens—and what does happen is, well, odd. (Our anti-hero is big on theatrical displays of brutality, involving body paint.) But by the end of the movie, it becomes clearer how Refn uses stillness and nothingness to keep the audience tense and anxious. There are two Bronsons on display here: the impossible thug that we don’t dare release into polite society, and the guy we enjoy watching do his terrible thing. The man and the movie are both living, punching contradictions.