Mickey Peterson is a man passionately devoted to going nowhere. Famous as the real-life prisoner considered the UK’s most dangerous (and, he asserts proudly, the most expensive to keep) he took the name Charlie Bronson for someone else’s love of the film Death Wish, to sell a fighting career during a 69-day parole at some point in the 30 years he’s spent in prison. A warden says to him, “If you can’t figure out what to do with yourself, how can we know what to do with you?” He doesn’t disagree: he rightly calls his indecipherable art “a piece of me,” by which he means, a piece of the unknowable. He’s a serial killer imprisoned for killing the same person over and over again. That person just happens to be himself.

After absolving his “decent parents” of being culpable for his existence, Peterson receives a prison sentence not for crime so much as his riotous response to it. His celebrity is immediate: in the oppressive regime of prison life, he’s a revolutionary. Fists and gnashing teeth are his weapons, bloody spittle is his declaration, outrage is his brave new world. But unlike the revolutionaries of history, with whom he shares all of this in common, Mickey Peterson has no goal.

He tours (as he sees it) a circuit of prisons and asylums, declared sane and then not again, gets passed around like the village sickness till there are no more bucks to pass and no more patient people left. His biopic, however, knows exactly what to do with him. Director and co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn sizes up his prize fighter and unleashes Tom Hardy on every exhaustive frame. He alternates between uncouth prison lighting that catches on every blemish and scrap of stubble and a torturously theatrical stage setting lit like an exhibit. The difference is so startling it’s almost non-aesthetic, almost like this movie about a real man has absolutely no context in the real world.

Refn isn’t really a Surrealist though, in the sense that the fantasy would come from his unconscious mind: it’s more like he’s making a documentary of a world that defies you to think of it rationally. He’s a realist who thinks he knows how crazy the world really is. In one scene, Bronson harasses his hostage to help him with his body paint (so he can attack the prison guards in style). “ON my ass, not IN, you homo,” he shouts. We get to witness this exchange in full, and I imagine this as Bronson’s own response to the world receiving his performance art, as its privilege to witness him, and to lay its hands on his ass. It’s no mistake that Refn thinks of the dead bodies and blood as a kind of personal opera. In the inescapable standard of Bronson’s mind, these are his players and his stage. His life is his performance.

Perhaps the most important part of the film is the only time Bronson allows this madman to feel despair. It comes when he’s transferred to an asylum and drugged out of super-sanity into comatose good behavior. He hopes that killing a pedophile will force a trial and reunite him with his “hotel room” in the maximum-security prison (not the most logical plan, but as Dali might have said, you can’t make a bird without breaking a few stones). Unfortunately, his strangulation doesn’t take. His description of it is the film’s most startling scene, as one half of himself turns to the other, painted as a manicured Nanny. Refn accentuates the vaudevillian in him. Hardy’s clownish exaggerations and exertive movements are fitter for the silent screen than a prison biopic. Bronson does the old clowns proud.

Having proved himself an active artist, Bronson takes up residence in a maximum-security art room. His flurries of flesh and distended eyes and genitalia receive more hasty praise than they deserve from an effeminate prison counselor looking ahead to the biopic rights, even perhaps as Bronson takes him hostage and turns him into a discolored exhibit of his irrational power. Prison guards beat Bronson’s fully exposed nude body while he screams, a demonic muscleman fully living out his art. I don’t know if he enjoys it, but he enjoys thinking they think he does.

It’s an instrumental argument in art whether photography or the painting related to it more resembles the natural world; in movies, it should make us wonder whether photographing a thing as a real thing is more effective at portraying reality than stylizing it into how we see it. Refn is cunningly complex in how he rides the line. He proposes that photography that approaches the real world as a painting, as the art that we see in it, makes the best argument for why resembling it perfectly shouldn’t be the goal to start with. This is how he ends up with symbolic imagery filmed as a documentary, and a man that represents it. Perhaps this is how Bronson would describe himself, as a spirit of critical importance in how we view ourselves. Or perhaps, as in one scene, he truly sees the world as a bunch of “loonies” painting themselves in their own feces, and what we’re witnessing is not his rebellion but his coping mechanism.

I believe the still-imprisoned Bronson intends no one to decipher his life. Refn, however, displays his charismatic zombie as a phantom of the conditions of our time, a resemblance against resemblance. With visceral purity, Hardy sweats through a gnawing 90 minutes, a trooper fit for nobler wars and somehow perfect in this one. Refn changes our expectations for this kind of movie, which have until now taken “based on a true story” to imply believability. Our affection for such a morally discolored life depends entirely on whether we see Bronson as he is or how he deceives himself to be, as a sideshow of boyish self-destruction or a Sisyphus burdened with living. I believe Refn fancies the life of Bronson as a tragic and primeval comedy and surely that’s what he had to do to make such a film. But I'm tempted to take Bronson and anything about him as the prisons do: as a problem shared. I don’t know if I enjoy it more than I enjoy people thinking that I do.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Nicolas Winding Refn

Brock Norman Brock

Nicolas Winding Refn

Michael "Mickey" Gordon Peterson/Charles Bronson Tom Hardy
Paul Daniels Matt King
Phil Danielson James Lance
Charlie's mother Amanda Burton
Irene Peterson Kelly Adams
Prison Governor Jonathan Phillips
Uncle Jack Hugh Ross


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