What’s Michael Peterson’s deal? Why on earth would a human being willingly choose to go to jail? Or go back once they’ve been released? It seems like an absurd idea on it’s face. But hell, look around the world; about a third of the players on NFL rosters -men with just about everything in the world to lose- have been in the slammer or are probably on their way. (Actually, that’s probably a generous estimate.) Even Hollywood starlets are getting in on the act. So it seems that some people are hell bent on getting locked up. And Peterson, for one reason or another, shares in that aim.
Bronson tells the story of Michael Gordon Peterson aka Charles Bronson, a man regarded by some as Britain’s “most violent prisoner,” and who has spent over 34 years in jail – 30 of those years in solitary confinement. He seems to really get off on stripping down naked, covering himself in talcum powder (or shoe polish) and beating the living crap out of prison guards, who of course return the favor. The arc of the story is his transformation from a person who randomly embraces a kind of violent nihilism to a person interested in engaging in artistic creation…while still kicking the guards asses.
The film’s director Nicholas Winding Refn deliberately chooses to avoid exploring the why’s of Bronson’s behavior. Bronson refuses to blame his parents for his actions, noting at the beginning of the film that there was “nothing wonky” about his upbringing. And you’ll get no real explanation from him or anyone else for the rest of the film. He’s almost like a force of nature, pacing around his cell like a caged animal, waiting for the next opportunity to erupt into a spree of savage violence. Mind you, Peterson never kills anyone. His acts are sort of reminiscent of Alex from A Clockwork Orange or Tyler Durden and the Space Monkeys from Fight Club, crazed attempts at finding a direction to channel his manic energy. And much like the characters in Fight Club, Bronson seems to enjoy receiving pain as much as he does inflicting it.
His journey from prison to um, more prison begins in 1974 when, as a young father and husband, Peterson robs a post office and comes away with only a few quid as the English might say. He’s sentenced to seven years in prison and is told by his mother, “Don’t worry son! You won’t do the seven! You’ll be out in four!” Ha!
Peterson embraces his grim new surroundings, comparing his prison cell to a hotel room and vowing to make his name known among the rest of the prison community. He succeeds at this goal, totally disregarding prison authorities and welcoming beatdowns from throngs of armed guards, he establishes himself as one mean son of a bitch. In fact Peterson is so successful at gaining a reputation for insane violence that he’s sent off to a psychiatric hospital. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Peterson is none too pleased with this arrangement. He prefers prison to life among “the loonies.” So, during recreation time he attempts to strangle a pedophile in an attempt to go back. His plan is unsuccessful and the man lives. Bronson is moved from the psychiatric hospital but instead of going back to jail he ends up in Broadmoor Asylum for the criminally insane.
Well that tears it! Peterson engages on a crusade of destruction that ends up costing the British corrections system a few million pounds but once again those sneaky English bastards outsmart our hero, choosing to declare him sane and allowing him go free as opposed to running up the bill with his destructive antics.
His freedom doesn’t last long however. After being rejected by a potential new Mrs Peterson, Michael -now redubbed “Charlie Bronson” after the Death Wish guy- robs a jewelry store. Finally the cops give him what he wants: more prison.
Bronson is introduced to the world of artistic expression and shows some promise. His art teacher finds his work interesting and the prison officials are all too relieved to have him engaged in something besides hand to hand combat. Unfortunately for them the artistic impulse is not enough to curb Bronson’s taste for a good bloody brawl. he takes the art teacher hostage and inviting yet another confrontation with the guards. They stick him in an upright cage too small to even lie down in, lock him away in the dark, and we’re left to ask ourselves, “what the fuck?”
The enigmatic nature of Bronson’s character and his apparent lack of motive are I guess the central themes of the movie. I was puzzled by it upon first viewing but I enjoyed it and felt engaged by the story. Like most people I imagine, I wanted to know more about the man and what made him tick but then it occurred to me that a great many people have no single rationale for their actions and, as I noted before the type of behavior Bronson exhibits -while extreme- is far from alien.
The star of the movie is Tom Hardy, who played The Forger in Inception and who’s about to blow up all over the place as the villain in The Dark Knight Rises and Mel Gibson’s replacement in the next Mad Max film. Hardy owns this movie. He plays the title role with sufficient menace and wrecklessness, flinging himself naked (literally) into the fight scenes. More importantly he lends the character a generous amount of humor, presenting Bronson as a showman who, for all of his brutality and repugnance, I couldn’t help but like.
an actual charles bronson movie: the original mechanic