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Bronson: Nicholas Winding Refn and the aesthetics of madness

Before introducing to movie enthusiasts his controversial, genre-pushing The Neon Demon in middle 2016, indie Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn has honed his skills with quite a few movies exploring the idea of masculinity through a variety of male characters in gritty situations, noticeably The Pusher trilogy (1996-2005), which he made back in Denmark, Bronson (2008), and Drive (2011). As Refn stated, his movies can be considered pornography created by his fetish for violence, but also elevate his style involving various artistic attributes like colorization and lighting, which has managed to impress the public and gather quite a cult following through the years.

Nicolas Winding Refn and The Neon Demon

Bronson secures a spot among his greatest works, and also a personal favorite of mine, as Refn shifted back to European arthouse filmmaking after his tryout in Hollywoodwith the financially unsuccessful Fear X. Written and directed by Refn himself, the movie tells a story about the infamous English criminal Michael Gordon Peterson (Tom Hardy), who conceived a persona called Charles Bronson after some time in prison. Bronson is based on the life of Charles Arthur Salvador, a real-life middle-class-born man who grunts and punches his way through high-security jails and psychiatric hospitals during most of his adult life. Or as the press always likes to address: ‘the most violent prisoner in Britain’.

A fictionalized biographical film, it still retains certain elements of a convention biopic: the events in relation to his childhood, the muses, the mentor, and the transfers. However, Refn crafted a smooth flow of narrative: interwoven with Michael Peterson’s memorable milestones in life are amusing moments of breaking-the-fourth-wall sharing sessions with viewers in the dark space of isolation and meta-stages where he imagines himself (in the spotlight) in front of a packed audience. In between his interactions with society, mostly wardens and police, the brutal fighter has opportunities to openly debate about his mentality as well as to claim his artistry and ambition to rise to fame.

Matt King in a scene with trademark Refn lighting

Refn’s trademarks in striking visual styles can also be legibly identified, contributing to the magnificently executed violence. In conjunction with the use of shades on human faces, Refn’s employment of excessive colors (he is color-blinded) once again takes this unconventional experience to higher level with red in brutal, bloody fights between the belligerent inmate and a dozen of guards at once in a contained area or neon turquoise in slow-paced, serene shots. The soundtrack from Johny Jewel goes pretty well with the atmosphere, noticeably The Electrician from The Walker Brothers and Digital Versicolor from Glass Candy.

Even when the divisive nature of Refn’s works would need more time for movie enthusiasts to really love or hate, Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Peterson was undoubtedly first-class. The versatile actor delivered a groundbreaking performance by constantly adjusting his facial expressions and emotional renditions to humor, scare, disgust and confuse us. Though oners are kept to a minimum, the cuts in claustrophobic settings really pull off for Refn’s tension-building process while making us rolling in the aisles. Hardy is in complete control of handling this challenging task, being at the center of attention and freedom to fool around and to explode in sensation. And just when you thought he gave the role his all, Hardy still got more under his sleeves with the last act’s fight sequence. In terms of physique, he also nailed the epic mustache together with that cartoonish smile, while putting up a lot of muscles in forearms, chest, and neck. Initially, the real-life “Charles Bronson” had been disappointed with Hardy but changed his mind two weeks later. That is how dedicated and legit Hardy proved himself to be.

A relentlessly amusing performance from Tom Hardy

Today, Tom Hardy deserves our recognition because of his enduring spirit to push both body and mind to the limits. So if you are a fan of this incredible actor through roles like Bane (The Dark Knight Rises), Tommy (Warrior), and Max Rockatansky (Mad Max: Fury Road), be sure to check out his previous work in Bronson to get a sense of the indie roles the man has gone through and accomplished. By constantly re-inventing himself, Hardy eventually reaches his A-list status today as a well-deserved reward.