Watching "Bronson" is like being tickled with a razor blade. An unnerving, barking-mad black comedy surveying the fractured mind of "the most violent prisoner in Britain," the picture is a divisive beast, shimmying between cracking wise and cracking skulls, often erratically so. Still, attention must be paid to star Tom Hardy, who consumes the controversial title role whole, spitting out the shrapnel with sniper-scope aim. It's not a pleasant film to spend time with, but Hardy's work is intoxicatingly smothering and electric, smoothing over the rough tonal edges left behind by director Nicolas Winding Refn.
Finding a life of crime agrees with his constitution, Michael Gordon Peterson (Tom Hardy, "Star Trek: Nemesis") has grown up a menace to society. Sent to prison, Peterson finds the experience enlivens his corroded soul, taking great pleasure in thrashing guards and inmates as he perfects his brand of violence. Rechristened Charles Bronson, the bruiser works his way through mental institutions, life on the outside, and ultimately back to lock-up. As the years pass, Bronson's behavior remains a mystery, but he finds some comfort in the arts, where his scattergun mind is allowed a pasture to romp around in.
While not explicitly a bio-pic, "Bronson" does seek to identify with its subject. The presentation is theatrical, slipping into Bronson's mind, where he sees himself as the ultimate entertainer, standing on a stage in front of a motionless crowd, regaling the room with stories and monologues that try to make sense of the pieces left of his life. The stage sequences are chapter stops between the spurts of madness, shaping Bronson has a man aware of his own destruction, but powerless to stop the violent impulses. Here, he's orchestrated his terror into a symphony of defiance, becoming a hero of his social failure.
Taking a rigid Kubrickian stance of filmmaking, Refn observes Bronson's rampage through cold, isolated takes, scored to classical selections or synth hits of the 1980s. Considering the material, it's an impressive corralling of moods and hostility, finding odd passages of beauty within Bronson to massage a narrative out of a man almost always found in some type of bondage. Refn stages rough moments of rage as Bronson picks fights with everything around him, but also nurtures a compelling dreamscape of eccentricities and textures found in constant incarceration. Refn maneuvers "Bronson" carefully, and while the film does get lost in stylistics now and again, the direction shows confidence and, well, has Hardy to work with.
Practically skinning Bronson and wearing his wrath as a bodysuit, Hardy is 99% character commitment, 1% grimy mustache as the title foe. It's an outstanding performance; Hardy delivers every inch of himself to the role, contorting his body and mind to fit a famous lunatic and his lifelong battle with justification. Drenched in spit, snot, and discomforting smiles, Hardy's Bronson is not a man to be messed with, taking any occasion to remind his jailers that his imprisonment is just more opportunity to revolt. Hardy is hypnotic, loyal to Refn's visual touches, and open to expose just about anything to explore Bronson's psychosis, merging Ace Ventura with Raoul Duke to personify a monster. The performance energizes the film, clarifies the threat, and showcases acting licking the edges of insanity. It's downright masterful.
If "Bronson" finds itself occasionally lost at sea, the elongation of mood is easily digestible, particularly when the subject here is such a force of nature. The pauses are almost required before the next freak out begins. "Bronson" is a brutal journey, requiring a strong stomach and a healthy command of patience. And if Bronson makes eye contact with you, run.