Britain's Most Violent Prisoner
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The final film we’ll look at in depth on our Film Club of the Air is the film called “Bronson.” It’s like a prison movie set in an English music hall with lots of “Fight Club” thrown in. It’s based on the true story of Michael Peterson, Britain’s most violent criminal whose most violent acts have actually taken place inside prison. After years of being shuttled between various jails and mental asylums, Peterson takes the name Charles Bronson, after the American actor, and through a series of senseless prison assaults renounces hope of ever having a life outside prison walls. This is directed by Nicholas Winding Refn. Winding-Refn. I don’t know exactly… ACCOMANDO: I have no idea how to say his name. MARKS: Nicholas. ACCOMANDO: It’s a Danish name. Yeah, we’ll call him Nick. CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, this has been called, Beth, a very different kind of a bio pic. Would you agree? And tell us why. ACCOMANDO: Yes, it is. CAVANAUGH: You do. ACCOMANDO: It’s different because it doesn’t put this biography out there as, oh, we’re – like “Amelia’s” out also right now. We have this like we’re going to chronicle this person’s life in this very fact-based kind of way. It’s a very stylish portrait of this man and the fascination that the director seems to have for him is, what drives this guy to be so violent even though it’s to his own detriment all the time. He can’t – it’s like he just can’t control himself. So he’s fascinated by him, and he gives him this stage and, literally, he gives him a stage. I mean, he puts him out on a stage where he’s narrating his story and we come back to this kind of performance art in the film. And it’s just so – it is this big, stylish flourish which matches who he is. I mean, he starts the film saying I want to be famous and that’s what I want to be. And the film kind of gives him that fame that he wants and whether you approve of that or not is something else but I think as a film it’s riveting to watch. CAVANAUGH: Scott, what did you think of “Bronson?” MARKS: I don’t know what I think of this movie because basically it’s 90 minutes of watching a guy beat the crap out of people. But – And it’s not “Fight Club.” “Fight Club” is a much better film than this. But there’s something fascinating about watching this actor go through the motions. Some of it doesn’t ring true. I mean, these cops walk into the jail cell and it’s almost like “Billy Jack.” Take a number, stand in line, and I’ll systematically mow every one of you down. You would figure that they would’ve thought up a different way to come in and attack this guy. His performance, as I said to you earlier, I think this is a much better performance than Heath Ledger in “Dark Knight.” CAVANAUGH: And we’re talking about Tom Hardy, the actor… MARKS: Yeah. CAVANAUGH: …who plays Bronson. MARKS: In fact somebody suggested, I think it was on Cinematical, that he should play Frank Sinatra in the new Scorsese bio pic. Huh? No, no, no, no, no, big mistake. It’s a great performance. There are moments of almost expressionistic glee… ACCOMANDO: Umm-hmm. MARKS: …in the filming of this production. I don’t know if this is everyone’s cup of tea but it was – Again, it’s so aggressively off-putting that I found myself having a good time watching this movie. CAVANAUGH: I think we do have a scene from this film and I think it might give listeners an idea of the kind of tone that’s set in – for a lot of it. Tom Hardy is this prisoner Charles Bronson. In this scene, he tells us how his involvement in an inmate riot got him released for a short time from the Broadmoor Prison for the criminally insane. (audio of clip from the film “Bronson”) CAVANAUGH: That’s Tom Hardy as prisoner Charles Bronson from the film “Bronson,” and when he’s saying this he’s on a musical stage… MARKS: Yeah. CAVANAUGH: …and he’s done up in makeup and so it’s – as you say, it’s a very stylized kind of film. You seem unsure about your reaction to it as well as Scott is, Beth. ACCOMANDO: No, no, I think I was much surer of my reaction to that… MARKS: Oh, she was much surer… ACCOMANDO: Yeah. No, I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. CAVANAUGH: Okay. ACCOMANDO: I thought it was riveting and the guy, the performance was mesmerizing and, I mean, you know, it’s a film where it – you really don’t want to categorize it as a bio pic because it just doesn’t feel that way. It feels so much more energetic and exciting than that because these bio pics tend to be so weighted down by this necessity to – by this necessity filmmakers seem to feel to cover everything and kind of be reverential towards the material. But, you know, this is a character who doesn’t merit reverence. MARKS: It’s a man who’s spent 34 years in prison, 30 of which is in solitary confinement… ACCOMANDO: In solitary confinement. MARKS: It’s going to be very hard to find enough to make him reverential. ACCOMANDO: So, and, I mean, some of the shots are just – there’s – the music selection is amazing, too, and there are these slow motion, elegant tracking shots following him on these just wild binges of, you know, violence within the prison. And, like I said, I just was riveted to it and thought the performance was great and the approach that the filmmaker took, too. MARKS: I just had one question. What does Charles Bronson have to do with “Bronson?” And that’s really not answered. Charles Bronson is the greatest guilty pleasure or one of them in cinema. “Death Wish III” is one of the greatest bad movies ever made, and if you look at this film, this guy has more dialogue in this film. If you took every film Charles Bronson made from 1970 on, they still didn’t give him as much dialogue as this guy. ACCOMANDO: Well, he was fascinated by “Death Wish” though. That was the whole reason why he got a – the prisoner himself, that Peterson was obsessed with Bronson from “Death Wish” and wanted to like be that guy. MARKS: I guess I wanted a little bit more… ACCOMANDO: I don’t think he thought it through himself about… MARKS: Well, maybe I’m putting more thought into it. ACCOMANDO: Exactly. MARKS: Because Charles Bronson was really an inarticulate lug and a terrible actor. And if you think about it, you – Charles Bronson makes Clint Eastwood look so much better because Clint Eastwood could have been Charles Bronson. He could’ve taken the easy route and just made “Dirty Harry” films the rest of his life like Charles Bronson just made “Death Wish” films throughout the course of his career. So I wanted a little bit more of an insider’s look as to why Charles Bronson? Why not Clint Eastwood? Why not Jean-Claude Van Damme? I mean, there’s a million of them to pick from. Why not Charles Bronson? But that’s just my own little peculiarity because I get such a kick out of Charles Bronson. ACCOMANDO: I don’t get the impression he saw a lot of movies so it might’ve just been that was the only one he saw. CAVANAUGH: I think that’s very true. In this “Bronson” movie, I think one of the allures of it is to see how someone with apparently no impulse control whatsoever and a very violent streak just gets sucked into this system, into the bowels of this system to where he ends up in this cage that is just about the size of his body and he’s almost turned into an animal and it’s, you know, that – I think that part of it is kind of – not the kind of part that’s in the musical. It’s… ACCOMANDO: No, and, I mean, real – there’s almost a sense of celebration of his uncontrollable nature through the course of the film until that end. So, I mean, it’s almost as if he lets you get this rush of, you know, from this guy’s, you know, uncontrolled violence and his aggressiveness and you kind of get buzzed off of it just because he’s so, you know – it’s such a ferocious kind of performance. But then at the end, he gives you these little kicker like, okay, if you thought that there was anything, you know, positive about this or anything, you know, you should take away from – then he throws you that little end shot that kind of just was a real like wake-up call. CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah. MARKS: So if you like films where the testosterone is thicker than paste, this is the film for you. Yeah. CAVANAUGH: Well, “Bronson” is currently playing at Landmark’s Ken Cinema. You need to see it tonight or tomorrow. After that, you’ll have to wait for the DVD.
“Britain's most violent prisoner” is the subject of the new film “Bronson” (opening October 23 at Landmark’s Ken Cinema). You can also listen to our discussion on the KPBS Film Club.
“Bronson” opens with the title character, Michael Gordon Peterson proclaiming that he wants to be famous. His hunger for celebrity, at least in part, led him to legally change his name to that of action star Charles Bronson. At the film's London premiere there was a recording by inmate Charles Bronson, in which he stated: "I'm proud of this film, because if I drop dead tonight, then I live on. I make no bones about it, I really was... a horrible, violent, nasty man. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not ashamed of it either... See you at the Oscars."
Well Bronson may not make the Oscars but actor Tom Hardy just might. Hardy plays Bronson with such ferocity and single-mindedness that it’s both riveting and frightening. With his shaved head and pumped up physique, Hardy presents an intimidating figure even to the armed guards. Hardy’s Bronson is a man who loves to fight and he’s game to take on all comers no matter what the costs. He’s imprisoned for seven years after taking a few bob from a post office but once in prison he seems to be in his element. His seven year stay extends to more than three decades, a chunk of which was in solitary confinement. The term kept getting extended because he kept getting into fights in prison. He strips down and greases up in order to take on guards that he taunts, attacks and then is beaten up by. He gives no real reason for the fury that drives him but it does drive him.
Writer-director Nicholas Winding Refn crafts a fascinating portrait of Bronson and endows the story with a certain operatic grandeur. He films Hardy’s Bronson on a stage narrating and explaining his own life in dramatic terms. Refn’s slow motion tracking shots cut to an epic music score prove mesmerizing. The mix of shot selection, score, and violence call to mind Stanley Kubrick’s work in “A Clockwork Orange.” And Bronson’s inability to control himself gives the film a potent, animalistic energy. As Bronson, Hardy stalks his prey like some hulking beast that doesn’t know how to do anything else.
Neither Refn nor Bronson himself try to look below the surface for a deeper understanding of Bronson’s behavior. The film offers him up and asks that you take him as he is. There’s no real moral judgment made here, just a fascinating and ultimately sad portrait of a violent man.
“Bronson” is rated R for violent and disturbing content, graphic nudity, sexuality and language.
Companion viewing: “Death Wish,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Sexy Beast”