I don't mean to undersell the above compliments, however. Tom Hardy as lowly criminal Michael Peterson and his imprisoned superstar alter ego Charles Bronson, displays a remarkable, feral intensity in the role, spitting meaty, cockney chunks of dialogue with a truly disquieting voracity. And Hardy makes a perfect match for Refn: both share a larger-than-life approach to their craft. The director's visual audacity is never more sublimely paired with Hardy's performance than during Bronson's intermittent narrations; snippets of a surreal one-man stage show for some great, unseen audience. The cutaways recall the feel of Alex's presentation following the successful administration of the ludovico technique in "Clockwork Orange." Swooping crane and sweeping dolly shots, along with some fantastic locations, also evoke Kubrick's directorial sentiments, as does the more obvious accompaniment of classical score to key sequences.
Unfortunately, the failure of "Bronson" is not only that there's very little dramatically to be done with a man who spends the better part of his life in solitary confinement, but that beyond a vague notoriety, Peterson's ultimate goal is never particularly clear. The ending of the film is startling in its abruptness given that the scene seems interchangeable with any number of the fights Bronson picks over the course of the film. It doesn't feel a particularly epic brawl, and by that point, the tedium of Bronson's outbursts, battles, and increasingly severe punishments had worn me (though it could maybe be called a statement on the nature of desensitizing cinema--in that respect a reverse "Clockwork Orange") into a sleepy passivity.
The film is nevertheless a step the right direction for the usually-schlocky and hyper-masculine Refn, but "Bronson" still wants for the substantiality that makes great films great films. It isn't likely to inspire any further meditation on its subject beyond perhaps provoking a curiosity about the man himself in those intrigued but unsatisfied with the screenplay's frugal allocation of hard data and social context. But despite the film's inability to make clear its greater thematic intent, I don't think "Bronson" is a perversely violent film or that it exists solely as a fetishistic idol to counterculture, as some will likely label it, and have labeled Kubrick's masterpiece. Its beautiful cinematography (courtesy Larry Smith, interestingly enough, the lighting cameraman for Kubick's own "Eyes Wide Shut") and stellar lead may make it a worthwhile rental next year, but as it stands, "Bronson" is a precautionary tale. It's a film that has everything going for it except the the thing that matters most: its story. And you don't need to be Stanley Kubrick to figure that out.