Friday, April 24, 2009

Bronson [IFFBoston Day 2]

Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

There were some technical difficulties starting off the Thursday night screening of Nicolas Winding Refn's (see also the Pusher trilogy) newest ode to violence, Bronson. But a few minutes into it, after an elementary school Charlie Bronson (or Michael Peterson, as he was known at the time) throws a small desk onto his cowering teacher, the glitches were fixed and the film was underway. Like the film Chopper before it, Bronson is a true life tale of a legendary convict who rose to prominence in the penal system. And like Eric Bana in Chopper, Tom Hardy rises to the occasion and delivers a performance of career prison inmate Charlie Bronson that's more reminiscent of a pit bull than a human being. But Hardy's face and body language (Hardy completely embodies the figurative brick shithouse in this film) is so expressive, he somehow does make you feel sympathy for this demented brute -- whose only answer to life's questions is a good lubed-up fist fight.

Nicolas Winding Refn has given the film a great, unique look as well. Shot on Super 16, there's a stark, grainy quality that is often framed in an appealingly kitty whompus (as my photography teacher put it) way. When Hardy's head is tucked away on the bottom left corner of the screen and he's contemplating what the hell just happened while the rest of the frame is cold, hard, grey concrete, it makes for interesting viewing. There's a smart, dirty quality to Bronson that reminded me of Alex Cox's early films.

But even great acting and photography can't save a film that suffers as badly form storytelling problems as this one. Badly paced, with a virtually non-existent character arc for its main subject, the film goes nowhere and has questionable purpose besides reminding us about the issue of prison reform. Charlie Bronson's story is without question ultimately a tragic one. And the film successfully makes an entertaining anti-hero out of him. But to what end? It's hard not to feel like the film spent 90 minutes spinning its wheels.

Without a doubt the movie would benefit from excising the numerous scenes where Bronson is on a stage in clown makeup addressing an theater audience or speaking directly to the camera giving narration. These scenes drastically slow down the film and prevent any sort of rhythm from falling into place. There are numerous other more imaginative, effective and interesting ways to get at the id of Charlie than by having pop up every five minutes to ham it up. It's a distracting technique and putting him in clown make-up just seems like a lazy way to make a point.

There's a lot of talent on display in Bronson. While some bad choices were made in terms of story, there are more than a few moments when everything falls into place and sparks are flying. (For better or worse I doubt I'll ever be able to get the scene of Charlie screaming at the prison guard he's taken hostage to grease up his backside before the other guards come crashing in.) Unfortunately these moments just don't add up.

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