"Bronson" (Tom Hardy) then recounts his past, explaining that his parents were good decent people, but "like most kids, he got into trouble" We watch young Bronson having violent outbursts, but on the stage, he claims he wasn't "bad, bad." He gets in trouble at his first job, stealing from his employer and then attacking the cops who confront him at home. He reveals that he was born Michael Peterson but took "Charlie Bronson" as his "fighting name" and alter ego.
We see Bronson/Peterson get married and settle down in England. He explains that he and his wife Irene, "Didn't have it bad." but qualifying that "they don't give you a star in the walk of fame for not bad, do they?" We see Bronson sawing off the barrel of a shotgun to hold up a post office. He gets caught and sentenced to seven years in prison. We see him crying in his new cell only to flash to Bronson in white clown make up laughing hysterically that we believed he was crying. He explains that to him prison was a hotel room. He saw it as a place of opportunity to "sharpen his tools." and make himself known to everyone in the place. He quickly starts fighting with guards over petty issues, which earns the admiration of the other inmates, who cheer as he walks down the hall.
He comes back to the stage in different suit and make up, and tells us that his parole was about to come up just as he'd started to make a name for himself. (eliciting a disappointed sigh from the audience) When an audience member challenges his claim, he snarls that "inside, I am somebody no one wants to fuck with. Do you understand? I am Charlie Bronson. I am Britain's most violent prisoner." We see news style clips of his gruesome and violent escapades, including newspaper headlines, reading "I Always Wanted to Be Famous"
He recounts transfers to different prisons, describing the merits and troubles of each, as more news clips flash by. He then explains that he finally ended up in "the funny farm" where we see a fellow inmate playing with his own shit, to illustrate the insanity, to Bronson's dismay. The attendants there seem to have an easier time handling him.having drugs at their disposal. They keep him so sedated that he's barely coherent, easing up over time but not enough that he can walk without stumbling. He decides that he needs to get out and comes up with a plan which involves strangling another inmate.
Back on stage, he reenacts a conversation with a nurse, using make up on half of his face to represent her, and trading profile views to play both parts. He had assumed the murder would mean he got a trial, but the nurse informs him that there will be no trial, only a transfer to another institution. He claims he spent over twenty years in solitary confinement at the new hospital, and breaks into a song "When I'm a Rock and Roll Superstar" as the screen behind him shows a conflict between the guards and inmates. He boasts that he was now "Britain's most expensive prisoner." According to Bronson, the system was tired of what he cost them so they certified him sane, and released him.
We see his release and his parents picking him up and bringing him home. He looks around at his parents things and asks about his old things, surprised that his parents haven't kept his old bed with them. He heads to Lewton, his hometown to see his Uncle Jack. He tells a woman on the train there, that he's off to make a name for himself by killing the Queen. Unfazed, she just remarks, "so, off to London then?" He finds his Uncle in the middle of a cocktail party, but nevertheless happy to see him. The guests are all fascinated by him, remarking that he's a real celebrity inside. Uncle Jack invites him to stay at his house. He connects with another ex inmate, who suggests that he can make a lot of money if he can pick a "fighting name" and they agree on Charlie Bronson. His friend from prison sets him up with underground fights, building up his name and the crowd he draws.Upset that the his cousin, who he is now in love with, has a boyfriend, he steals a ring from a jewelry store to propose, but she tells him she's already getting married to her boyfriend, Brian.
He gets arrested for stealing the ring. The warden question him about his choice of using an American actors name, finding this odd. He asks what Bronson did with his 69 Days free. Bronson answers that he was building an empire, prompting the warden to tell him "You're ridiculous."He takes the prison librarian hostage when he brings books to his room" Bronson shouts out of the hole in his door that they'd better send help. The warden calls him in his cell and asks what the problem is. Bronson tells the warden that he'll kill the librarian if he doesn't get what he wants but when the warden asks what he wants, Bronson can only ask 'what have you got." Neither coming up with anything prompting Bronson to hang up. The guards stop him from hurting the librarian, and administer a severe beating. restraining him so the warden has a chance to talk with him again, again getting nowhere.
He starts taking art classes in prison. One of the instructors comments on his work and suggests he find the piece of himself that doesn't belong in prison. He starts drawing constantly, and his art instructor puts in a good word for him with the warden who suggests he continue focusing on his artistic endeavors. The instructor tells him he believes he'll get a release date, because he's a brilliant artist and he'll be a star, priding himself on knowing this because he''s a good judge of character." Bronson then attacks the art instructor which brings us back to the Bronson on stage, with the audience wildly applauding.
Back in the prison events, Bronson strips and covers himself in paint, demanding music from the warden or he'll kill the instructor. We see that he has tied up the instructor in a chair and put a blanket over him, as Bronson listens to music and plays with the art supplies. The instructor says he isn't feeling well, but is ignored. Bronson, naked in paint and a top hot, starts painting the instructor himself, putting an apple in his mouth, and painting eyes on his eyelids. He then tells the guards to come get the instructor and attacks them as they enter in riot gear to subdue him. As he falls, the Bronson on the stage flashes a smile.
We see text on the screen announcing that Charles Bronson is Britain's most famous prisoner, and has spent 34 years in prison, 30 in solitary confinement. We then find Bronson badly beaten and barely able to move, enclosed in a cage not much larger than his body. The guards close the doors.
Nicholas Winding Refn has produced an interesting work here. While posing as a character study, and based in some manner on the true story of "Charlie Bronson" Britain's most violent prisoner, watching it you have little choice but to be skeptical. It raises a lot of good questions, but to most of them the answer is left up in the air. Tom Hardy portrays Bronson very well, and his performance essentially is the movie. Even in flashbacks, we're being treated to his show. He does have enough presence to fascinate. He's a believable narcissist, with limited goals and shortsighted ambition. He is menacing, and threatening but hardly reliable.
Bronson is obsessed with becoming a celebrity, and seems quite pleased when he makes the newspapers as "Britain's most violent prisoner." We don't really know why he's obsessed with him. As he mentions, he doesn't claim a troubled home life, or any obstacles that most people don't face. He throws away his own steady home life, self described as "pretty good" because "pretty good won't get you on the Walk of Fame." He doesn't complain of money troubles, yet feels that holding up a post office is a sensible thing to do. From an early age he attempts to show that violence is his most trusted method of gaining attention. However, Bronson in make up, addressing an imagined audience is a pretty direct way of questioning the narrative. Everything we're told is intentional and largely for show. And on his imaginary stage, he seems the biggest fan of his own celebrity.
Even in his own retelling however, he has no direction at all.The idea of being a celebrity is his only real goal, rather than a means to an end. He doesn't know what to do with celebrity when he has it. This is a guy who takes hostages and then can't come up with demands, hoping the warden will help him think of something. Even his means of attaining celebrity, violence, is portrayed as the most pointless example that could be imagined typically. The majority of his violence is directed at groups of guards who typically beat him down in short order. The only way to look at this character is as an aimless, self styled performance artist. His stage presence (in his own mind) and his elaborate preparation for the arrival of the guards indicates that he is always giving a performance.
While you might imagine that choosing a "fighting name" like "Charlie Bronson" would suggest a fascination with violence in pop culture, he doesn't even choose the name himself, and has no similarity with the actor Charles Bronson, or even the parts he played. The actor is known for his stoic men, rarely speaking, but becoming deadly when pushed too far. "Charlie Bronson" here is the opposite, a mess of senseless noise, looking to be noticed at all costs. He isn't that aware of pop culture, he's far too self obsessed to take any real interest. The distance between his fighting name and the man he took it from, is another indication of his shallowness.
His later dabbling in art are only another means of attention seeking. When his instructor hails him as a star, he flirts with the idea of behaving himself even painting a picture for the warden, much like a child giving an apology. When his art seems to gain him unusual trust, from the warden, he is then outside his comfort level and falls back to hostage taking and violent confrontation. His art is as unimportant to him as his fighting, both are only means of gaining celebrity. The self destructive nature of his acts don't bother him because they make him further known. The audience has little choice but to agree with the Warden who says "You're ridiculous"
Bronson does badly when able to live his own life. He ends up being used and discarded, and despite his efforts to build an intimidating personal, it makes little difference to most people, who readily use him. We expect an outburst when his cousin says she's getting married to her real boyfriend, but he accepts like a powerless child, only taking out his anger on the guards who he knows will take him down shortly. Prison becomes his safe place, a small, ordered community that requires less independent thought, and provides predictable reactions. He's a big deal "on the inside."
While the "based on a true story" element, including reminders of the time spent in prison, in most movies are used as part of a cautionary tale, highlighting the inhumanity of the prison systems, in this movie, it serves as a matter of fact piece of the picture. It's no inhumanity to keep Bronson in prison, as he works so hard to stay there. He has achieved the celebrity he wanted, which sadly is not surprising in our reality TV obsessed culture. Everyone wants to be a star, Bronson simply chose a way to get there that has consequences most of us wouldn't be willing to tolerate. The closing shots of the film, with Bronson in a cage of nearly his own size suggests that his true prison isn't the institution, but his own limiting obsession.
It's a film that frustrates in that our character makes no progress, serving simply as Bronson, revelling in himself, making no progress and arriving at the same place he starts. While many viewers may ask "so what?" at the end, Nicholas Winding Refn has constructed a film that mirrors the characters self obsession and pointless journey. Violence may get you your celebrity, but most would ask, "Then what?" Bronson doesn't ask, so there's no answer to show.