Sundance 2009 Review: Bronson
The oddest thing at Sundance this year, apart from the yawning absence of filmgoers and tourist-revelers, was the rain, mudslicks, and balmy weather. (Back in New York, the temperature dipped into the low 20s and an ice-heaving storm buffeted the Eastern seaboard.) Remember: We’re talking about Utah in mid-January. The Wasatch Range. West of the Rockies. Rain? How appropriate, then, that Sundance was heavy on enviro-conscious films this year, including the Closing Night presentation of Robert Stone’s Earth Days, an historical look at the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Also on tap were docs like The Cove, an activist surveillance thriller about Taiji, Japan, site of the world’s largest mass dolphin slaughter, and Joe Berlinger’s Crude, a doc on the still unresolved “Amazon Chernobyl” court case pitting indigenous Ecuadorean villagers against legal representatives of oil-drilling behemoth Chevron.
Somber topics, to be sure, but all too fitting for the weather, the low-key mood, the sense of big things (climate, economy, film industry) shifting underfoot.
Yet, despite my dour description of the tonal environment at this year’s festival, some people actually enjoyed the slump in attendance, and thought the mellow mood a bit more in tune with the festival’s original spirit. Certainly, a lot more local film lovers gained entrance to movies, and no one, as far as I know, got shut out of press screenings. So there’s a silver lining, if you’re looking for one. The upside for me was the quality of the movies I was finally able to see (the first two days were not so promising), and the engaging conversations I was privileged to have with a number of filmmakers whose work I admire, including James Toback, Nicholas Winding Refn, Joe Berlinger, and Cary Fukunaga. Now onto the first micro review of my favorite Sundance ’09 films.
Bronson made me a believer in the twisted imagination and stylistic bravado of Nicholas Winding Refn, who has specialized in brainy, ultraviolent mayhem (The Pusher Trilogy, Bleeder) since he was tossed out of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In this garishly funny treatment of real-life convict Charlie Bronson, née Michael Peterson, Britain’s most violent prisoner, Refn sends us on a hellishly frenzied amusement ride into the brutal, attention-craving mindset of his notoriously disturbed subject, who has spent 30 of the past 34 years in solitary confinement, scribbling bestselling memoirs and poetry and making gallery-grade art. More a black-comic concept film than a biopic, Bronson skirts surreal fabulism with its art-damaged gene splice of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, presenting us with a man who embraces isolation, revels in criminal celebrity, and stars in his own self-mythologizing theater of the absurd. In recurrent scenes unrelated to the staggered, episodic storyline, Bronson appears as a burlesque Al Jolson-y showman narrating the grand themes of his life for an appreciative, but unseen crowd. Whether they’re meant to be understood as psychic fantasy or stylistic amusement, the bits work as expressive totems of Bronson’s megalomaniacal mindset.
Apart from Refn’s indisputable formal wizardry—the Verdi-inflected bravura opening sequence will either stake a claim in your racing heart or turn you out of the theater post-haste—British actor Tom Hardy’s unwavering commitment to the role is astonishing and even a bit frightening, considering how drastically he’s transformed himself since his appearance last year in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla: With his slick bald pate, comic-book-size WWF muscles, and Hercule Poirot–style moustaches, he is a devilish analogue to Chopper, but even more charismatic and intimidating than Eric Bana’s Aussie psycho. In two jaw-droppingly ballsy scenes, Hardy nabs a hostage, doffs his clothes, slicks his naked body with oil, and waits like a hungry animal for the advance of a squadron of goon guards in riot gear. He’s a sporting type, you see, having cut his teeth on the bare-knuckle fighting circuit on one of his ill-advised prison releases. His life outside the penitentiary is a trail of botched robberies and senseless assaults; his life inside “the hotel,” as he cheekily calls it, a riot of unpredictably explosive behavior. No wonder the authorities finally ship him off to a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, pump him full of antipsychotics, and wait for the beast within to dwindle to a salivating vegetable. Nothing doing. Amazingly, the real-life Charlie Bronson never killed anyone, but his intense lust for violence has kept him out of the general population for years, even though he is productive and certifiably sane. Refn’s biggest gamble in the film is to suggest that Bronson, nicknamed by a gay acquaintance after the Lithuanian Death Wish star and ’70s screen vigilante, is a frustrated artist “searching for his canvas.” An interesting premise, and the arc of the film takes that idea to an extreme. But might this also be a classic case of projection, as Refn has discovered the metaphor that best describes his own creative process and mad-dog approach to making movies? Good thing no one has put the Danish wunderkind behind bars. Yet.