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Though he currently has a total of 38 acting credits on IMDB, going back to 2001, Tom Hardy never really found mainstream recognition until Inception last year. Yet most moviegoers don’t know that Hardy’s breakout role came a bit earlier than that. No, it wasn’t in Layer Cake or RocknRolla, and it sure as hell wasn’t in Star Trek: Nemesis. His true breakout role — the one that got him attention from Hollywood and from film nerds worldwide — was the eponymous lead in Bronson.

I’d certainly heard of this movie when it came out, but I never quite got around to seeing it until now. I confess that part of the reason why I kept pushing it back on the queue is because I knew beyond any doubt that it was worth the hype. Why? Here’s why. That physical transformation alone was enough to convince me of Hardy’s dedication as an actor. Furthermore, just look at him in that picture. Everything you could ever need to know about Hardy’s portrayal of Bronson is in that picture. The psychosis and rage in his expression is such that the character looks like he could leap out of the screen and throttle the viewer. I felt like everything I ever needed to know about the movie was in that picture.

However, after slimming down for his role in the aforementioned Inception, Hardy has returned to his old muscular form for Warrior, coming out this Friday. Additionally, Bronson was directed and co-written by an up-and-comer named Nicolas Winding Refn (don’t ask me how to pronounce that), who also directed next week’s Drive. Both films are being released with such an enthusiastic critical reception that I’ve already resolved to see them. Which means that if I was ever going to see the amazing film that Hardy and Refn made together, I may as well do so now.

Bronson is a biopic of Charles Bronson. No, not the actor; the most infamous violent criminal in Britain, formerly named Michael Peterson. He first went to prison for the attempted robbery of a post office, given a seven-year sentence. However, Bronson proved to be so violent that he spent fourteen years being transferred to various prisons and mental asylums. At that point, the British government had to pay so many bills for damages and medical costs that they certified him sane, just because he was too expensive to keep locked up. A mere 69 days later, Bronson was arrested again and locked back up. To this day, Bronson is still serving out a life sentence in solitary confinement, after being shuttled to over 120 different prisons, including all three of Britain’s maximum-security hospitals.

As you may have guessed, this movie has a protagonist who isn’t remotely sympathetic. Yet he’s practically the only character in this film. Sure, there are supporting characters, but precious few of them have any effect on the plot, and most of them disappear for good as quickly as they come in. There are a few minor exceptions, of course. There’s a girlfriend who breaks Bronson’s heart and warps his mind as only a beautiful woman can. There’s a boxing promoter who gives Bronson his chosen moniker. There’s an art teacher that Bronson works with in prison. There are Bronson’s parents and his uncle. Yet I can’t even remember any of these characters’ names, since each one gets five minutes of screen time at most.

You might think it would damage the film to have a supporting cast full of nothing but two-dimensional bit characters, and for any other movie, you’d be right. In this movie, however, the supporting cast is used entirely as a sounding board for the main character. They are there to highlight the fact that no matter how much better Bronson might be getting, he can still turn into a violent maniac without any provocation. Furthermore, their blandness makes for a startling contrast against the bizarre nature of Bronson’s character.

Folks, this is pretty much a one-man movie, and that one man is all the reason you need to see this movie. Tom Hardy threw himself into this role to a staggering degree. It’s simply amazing to look into his eyes and see a total void of morality. There are clearly thoughts going on in his head, they just aren’t comprehensible to anyone else. That isn’t to say that he’s insane, though. On the contrary, Bronson is a man who knows exactly what he’s doing and he fully understands that his actions are immoral. He just doesn’t care. In fact, he welcomes it.

We’re told from the very outset that Bronson always wanted to be famous. In point of fact, the movie is peppered with little internal monologues that Bronson delivers to an imaginary audience. Not only is this a very entertaining way to give exposition and to tell what the character is thinking at any specific time, but it also provided a convenient means to show Bronson’s creativity and dementia without regard for things like causality or sense.

Getting back to the original point, Bronson first started this life of crime because he wanted to be famous. Yet the only thing he was good at was being a psychopath. The problem (to paraphrase the man himself) is that just being a psychopath won’t get you a star on the Walk of Fame. So, he set out to be the most violent, most infamous, most creative and outlandish psychopath he could possibly be.

But this character doesn’t just cause riots because he wants to get famous, he causes trouble because he gets off on it. This is a guy who loves to be the strongest and most intimidating guy around. He enjoys the challenge of finding new, more elaborate ways to take hostages and organize rooftop protests. He loves hitting people and getting hit back. His entire goal is to alienate himself and no one else will talk with him, so it’s no wonder he thrives in solitary confinement. He’s spent his entire adult life in prison not only because society couldn’t possibly put him anywhere else, but also because prison is the only place where Bronson can hit someone and instantly get hit back harder.

Speaking of crazies, I honestly can’t tell if Nicolas Wending Refn is a madman or a genius. The editing, sound design, and score are all used to enrich the story through contrast in ways that are just mind-boggling. Several fight sequences are set to bright and happy music. There are long sequences of total stillness, to drag out the suspense of what Bronson is going to do. I won’t even get started on all the lengthy moments of silence. Put simply, Refn manages to present this totally disturbing story in ways that are heightened enough to be enjoyable, yet grounded enough to feel realistic and terrifying. Staggering work.

Bronson is only 92 minutes long, and I enjoyed every moment. It’s wonderfully creative on a technical level, and Tom Hardy is a thrill to watch in every scene. Though this movie definitely isn’t for the squeamish, this is still a fascinating subject as depicted by a movie that’s a lot of fun to watch. If you haven’t seen this yet, seek it out at your earliest convenience.

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