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Crossing Over: “BRONSON”

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Welcome, FANGORIA Readers, to CROSSING OVER, our newest column that highlights the films, series and content out there outside of horror that is fashioned towards or pays tribute to our beloved genre. By shining a light onto these projects, FANGORIA hopes to open a world of entertainment perfect for fright fans that lies just beyond the borders of the horror community. So without further ado…

Michael Peterson wanted to be famous. But by his own admission, he wasn’t very talented. So, he turned to a life of petty crime, one that ended when he was arrested for knocking over a post office. Peterson was given a prison sentence of seven years, though it ultimately became a life sentence, due to his incessant need to assault and take hostage fellow inmates and prison personnel. He did this all in the name of becoming the most famous prisoner in England. And to be honest, he pretty much succeeded, though at a great cost, one that the film to be discussed posits he is indifferent to.

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s BRONSON, the violent life and times of Michael Peterson are documented with a stylized detachment. Refn manages to get us into the mind of his demented subject (played here by a hulking, volatile Tom Hardy) without ever celebrating his actions or the philosophy that fueled them. He doesn’t need to, since Peterson does a fantastic job of sensationalizing his life in spite of the understated yet brutish events the audience witnesses.

Peterson, who took on the name of famed character actor Charlie Bronson when he became a bare-knuckle boxer and kept it when he went back to prison, is an entertainer at heart. Refn demonstrates this in a sensational manner by peppering the film with unnerving sequences of a suited Bronson standing on a stage, addressing an audience apparently eager to hear his story.  He talks gleefully about his multiple prison stints (which he likes to call hotels) and generally refers to incarceration as being “madness at it’s best.” Bronson seems to love prison and solitary confinement, and is utterly content with it defining his life.

When we Peterson/Bronson him as a baby in his crib, the infant is sitting up, with his arms around the bars, as though he was a born jailbird. Towards the end of the film, as Bronson sits stoically on the art room stairwell, the camera frames him in a medium shot between the rungs beneath the banister.  What the film might lack in subtlety, it makes up for in atmosphere, with Refn’s trademark use of neon lighting and electronic score giving Bronson’s life story the 80’s action edge he’d love to believe it has.

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Hardy is usually caked with makeup for these sequences, as he is for the many times he strips naked and brawls with guards who, despite being armored up, still prove to be no match for him until he tires out. Arguably, the former sequences are more disturbing than the latter, because the viewer will no doubt feel some level of fear and disgust for a man who seems to equate random bouts of violence with showbiz.

One of the most common definitions of sanity is that it is a state in which one does the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Bronson certainly doesn’t seem to expect an easy life when he does things like attempt to murder a child rapist or terrorize a prison art teacher (the one man he meets in prison who’s willing to try and treat him like anything other than a human bulldozer, and who pays dearly for it), but the one-man show in his mind doesn’t seem to acknowledge any of the harm he’s doing to himself, the endless loop of destruction he’s initiated. This is a man who is so wrapped in his own world that he fails to see that the real one around him is shrinking. In the film’s final scene, after yet another stand-off with guards covered in riot gear, Bronson stands bloodied and disorients in a slim iron cage. The room around him is bare and rusty, with one red light providing the sole illumination. Finally, after all the well-edited montages and operatic scores, we see Bronson at his most primal and pathetic, trapped in a Hell of his own design.

Refn’s BRONSON is not strictly a horror film, but it will fill you with fear and despair over a prime example of the sadistic animal that dwells within every human being. As of 2014, Bronson has reportedly changed his name to Charles Salvador, and has renounced his past image, as well as violence altogether (though he still remains a vocal fan of the film). It’s a somewhat hopeful real-life addendum to this cinematic slugfest on the human psyche, one that this writer adds to potentially quell the growing disquiet that might rise up within viewers as they watch the prison guards shut the door on Bronson, shrouding him in a permanent darkness.

If you’re willing to take a walk down a nihilistic road, give BRONSON a watch. but to quote the man himself: “…hang on to your fillings, alright? ‘Cause it’s going to get fucking leary.”

BRONSON can be streamed via Netflix Instant.

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About the author
Christopher La Vigna
Christopher La Vigna is a writer, filmmaker, and the newest batch of blood to be welcomed into the haunted halls of FANGORIA. He’s a graduate of Hunter College*, and can be found lurking around any movie theater or comic shop near his person. You can argue about movies with him on Twitter: @Chris_LaVigna
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