Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn || Produced by: Rupert Preston, Danny Hansford
Screenplay by: Brock Norman Brock, Nicolas Winding Refn || Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Amanda Burton, Kelly Adams, Juliet Oldfield, Jonathan Phillips, Mark Powley
Music by: Johnny Jewel || Cinematography by: Larry Smith || Edited by: Matthew Newman || Country: United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 92 minutes
Let me start this review by saying I’m not the biggest fan of biopics. Echoing Quentin Tarantino’s general distaste for them, biopics are lazy Oscar-bait dramas engineered for certain up-and-coming or established actors to win big awards, and little else. Because they’re essentially biographies in film form, they follow a person’s life from birth till death in long, drawn-out fashion that allow for filmmakers to skip that whole, pesky editing process. They’re basically excuses for actors to demonstrate a highlight reel of speech and drama training, but the movies themselves are often incredibly boring.
There are a few exceptions, of course. One of the best biopics in recent years is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, which follows the life of notorious British prisoner Michael Gordon Peterson, stage name Charles Bronson, who is regarded as the country’s most violent criminal and has spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement. Psychologically speaking, the real-life figure makes a fascinating case-study of mental unrest, sociopathy, self-destructive behavior, and ultimate emotional not-giving-a-fuck-ness. If nothing else, Bronson succeeds as a painting of an incredibly tortured, indescribable figure whose behavior is so irrational, illogical, and ultimately terrifying in a strange, sardonic kind of way, that this biopic stands from the rest of its lackluster pack; you don’t understand its subject any better at the end than you did at the beginning. Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, some men just want to watch the world burn; but get this, Charles Bronson’s only real victim is himself.
From what I can tell, the man has never killed anybody in his whole life, and his worst crimes are petty thievery and punching a lot of folks in the face. The rest is just unruly prison behavior and a big fuck-you attitude, as I said.
Bronson is directed and co-written by Refn, the same man behind similarly artsy and hyper-violent films like Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013). One can see the resemblance almost immediately, though Bronson being a biopic, most of the violent drama comes from one man and one man only: A brilliant, unrestrained Tom Hardy. Rather than just putting Hardy in a variety of familial or prison-drama situations ad infinitum, Refn enhances and channels Hardy’s brilliant, charismatic, often comedic energy with beautiful montages, great theatrical narration, and wonderful slow-motion sequences set against pop-electronic music, the latter of which Refn has become famous for nowadays.
That’s what sets this biopic apart from most others: Refn’s direction and his use of Matthew Newman’s editing. Most every well known biopic features a great star performance, and Hardy delivers in spades, but its the visual style Refn imbues in this piece that makes it truly memorable and cinematic. Hardy’s Bronson is the primary subject of the film, obviously, but his role and fantastic acting are part of a bigger movie.
Another thing going for the movie is its short length. A general rule of thumb for narrative filmmaking I maintain is that a movie shouldn’t be longer than two hours unless it has a damn good reason to be so, and biopics (along with Bollywood films) are some of the worst offenders of this. Bronson, on the other hand, is a brisk 92 minutes that doesn’t overstay its welcome and ends at the perfect moment. Efficiency, I love it!
All in all, Refn’s Bronson is a textbook example of how to do a biopic right. It aims for cinematic drama and precision over endless reverence for its titular subject, and thus remains far more respectful of it in an indirect, convoluted way. The real-life Mikey Peterson loved this film, and he should, because it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that defies traditional genre conventions that happen to be anti-cinematic. If a filmmaking convention is broken, a filmmaker should fix it.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Bronson decides to be a movie first, and a visual biography second with effective editing, narration, and distinctive visual flair. Needless to say, Hardy is tremendous in this film. He blurs the line between screen-acting and theatre speech and drama, showcasing a wide range of absurd over-the-top emotion and restrained subtlety.
— However… several scenes feel flat despite Refn’s best intentions, and none of the supporting cast are memorable in any way.
? This movie’s certifiably sane!