After petty thief Michael Peterson was sentenced to prison in 1974, he changed his name to Charles Bronson and over the next three decades gained notoriety as Britain’s most violent prisoner. Bronson purports to tell his story, depicting the prisoner (played by Tom Hardy in a riveting, all-in performance) in a series of violent clashes with inmates and prison guards. Director Refn’s startling visual style clearly evokes the icy, detached formalism of Stanley Kubrick; Refn uses big loud chunks of music, from Wagner to the Pet Shop Boys, to create an environment both intimately scuzzy and coolly alienating.
Refn stages the many fights with a baroque theatricality that takes some of the edge off—the most violent images in the movie are of slow-mo spittle flying furiously out of Hardy’s mouth. But while Refn’s style brings us closer to the hermetically sealed world that is Bronson—a man with no beginning or end, forever pacing the edges of his cell, waiting for his next fight—it also prevents us from getting inside the man himself. Ultimately, Refn is more interested in expanding the myth of Bronson-as-celebrity to the breaking point rather than exploding the myth to search for the man behind it.