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Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009)
Picking up where Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino’s hyper-stylized portrait of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, left off, Bronson tries to aestheticize away our objections to its subject. Here, Bronson is depicted as a man who has devoted his life to violence. During the course of the film, Bronson starts a series of aggressive scuffles, resulting in him being shuffled from prisons to asylums, from general population, to art therapy classes, to solitary confinement. Presumably, this series of failed treatments is meant to demonstrate the limits of the British reform system. In its repetitive drone, all it does is demonstrate the limits of its makers’ intelligence and imagination.
Trouble is obvious from Bronson’s first montage of its title character’s schoolboy days. Refn’s cutting and framing are devised to make his violence against his teachers and fellow students as exciting as possible. The heavily choreographed action flatters Bronson at every opportunity, making him seem like some sort of superhero, capable of sustaining inhuman amounts of pain. In between the episodes of senseless brutality, which very quickly grow mind-numbing, Bronson talks directly into the camera, narrating a perverse vaudeville act to an imagined audience.
In Il Divo, Sorrentino’s style had some sociological import. Andreotti, cast into forty-five swirling years of Italian politics, became a sad, constant reminder of Italy’s political failings. Here, the only rational explanation behind layering so much visual panache onto Bronson’s life story this is that it’s showing us Bronson’s distorted inflation of his own accomplishments. This is worse than empty style in service of itself… it’s style in service of a genuine sociopath. Perhaps no moment further crystallizes the moral vacuum that is Bronson than a bit that occurs midway, when Bronson has been dumped in an insane asylum. There, he plots his escape by deciding to kill another patient. Refn, seemingly afraid of alienating his audience, despite this subject matter, is sure to assure us that the intended victim is a pedophile first. Heaven forbid we dislike Bronson!
Bronson is ethically dubious, to be sure. It clearly fuels the real Bronson’s desire be famous, encouraging future outbursts. Refn’s final, desperate attempt to present Bronson as a misunderstood artist, some sort of poet of violence, is risible and unconvincing. The movie insults its audience, who understand Bronson immediately, by achieving no distance from its subject. Worse than such concerns, at least for most viewers, will be Bronson’s remarkable lack of character development or narrative momentum. Events last exactly as long as the director has camera tricks to unspool. It’s all too clear that Refn has nothing much to offer beyond his dubious flashiness. A determinedly ugly movie, as brutish in its delivery as its subject is brutish in character, Bronson fails to offer meaningful insight into the life of a singularly idiotic individual.