Published Oct 29, 2009With all the dust being kicked up over the wide release of Lars von Trier's Antichrist, it's understandable if audiences on this side of the pond overlook Bronson, a peculiar crime film from Denmark's second biggest cinematic export, Nicolas Winding Refn.
The film is based (although loosely, one would imagine) on the life of Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy), notorious as Britain's most dangerous inmate. Like Grizzly Man's Timothy Treadwell and Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, Peterson's the kind of determined blue-collar dreamer whose singular purpose is to become famous — at any cost. To this end, he begins brawling at a young age, pounding the piss out of schoolmates, teachers, bobbies and anyone else daft enough to stand in range of his permanently clenched fists.
After robbing a post office, Peterson winds up in prison, where his predilection for fisticuffs keeps him bouncing around from institution to intuition until he's eventually paroled — the result of his being too expensive for the system to sustain. On the outside, he reinvents himself as bare-knuckle boxer Charlie Bronson, further fortifying his self-styled tough guy image.
Best known for the grubbily authentic Pusher trilogy, Refn has proven eminently capable of balancing the inherent sensationalism of screen violence with its street-level realities. Bronson possesses no such equilibrium. The film is burdened by intrusions of pseudo-Brechtian narration that have a foppishly attired Hardy addressing a largely inert audience of theatregoers, a flourish that may be tolerable had it been used sparingly. But it ends up making a farce of both Peterson and the film itself. Never mind that Oz pulled off the whole prisoner-as-his-own-Greek-chorus thing a decade ago. As a result, any serious consideration of institutionalized violence or masculine fantasia is subsumed by Refn's sillier aesthetic impulses.
But when it's not reaching for the rafters with such wackiness, Bronson is a highly engrossing film, and Hardy disappears into the role. (Anyone who remembers him as the lissom Praetor Shinzon from Star Trek: Nemesis will barely recognize him as the film's eponymous brick shithouse.)
If you only see one film by a Danish filmmaker this month, it should probably be Antichrist. If you see two, check out Bronson. (Alliance)