Art's a funny thing.  It exists by agreement sometimes, when the artist finds a buyer or acclaim.  It exists in a vacuum sometimes, when an artist creates for the sheer pleasure of it.  It exists sometimes in unlikely forms, from unlikely sources.  And sometimes, it is the sole lifeline which keeps someone clinging however tenuously to this planet as it spins.  I'm not sure how I'd describe the art created by Charlie Bronson, the hyper-violent protagonist of this film, but director Nicolas Winding Refn's art is positively devastating.  Refn's probably best known internationally for the blistering trilogy of "Pusher" films he made with star Kim Bodina.  Those movies were stylish, brutal, and mesmerizing, but instead of launching him into an era of massive productivity, he somehow got sidelined into things like Miss Marple TV movies.  Now, finally, five years after the "Pusher" series ended, Refn's back, and the material couldn't be a better fit for his sensibilities.

"Bronson" is a true story, but it isn't told in any sort of conventional biopic terms.  Instead, Refn and his co-writer Brock Norman Brock do their best to create an entirely subjective portrait of a man, told from the inside.  He wants you to experience the world the way Bronson does.  And just who is Charles Bronson, and why does he have the same name as one of Hollywood's greatest tough guy icons?  How did an average English boy named Michael Peterson, raised by good and loving parents, become the single most violent prisoner in the history of the English penal system?

[More after the jump.]

That transformation from one thing to another by sheer force of will, that desire to define your own life... that's the main focus of the film, and of Bronson's entire existence.  Growing up in Britain, he was determined to find some way to become a celebrity.  Living in a small industrial town, raised to aim low, he didn't see any easy way to make his mark on the world, so in 1974, at the age of 19, he walked into a local post office with a sawed-off shotgun.  No one was hurt, and all he got was a fistful of ratty bills, but it still earned him seven years in prison.  For some people, that would have been a punishment, but for Michael Peterson, it was the key to realizing his dreams.  He realized that prison was a smaller world, making him a bigger man by default, and a world where you are defined by your actions.  So he set out to prove that he was the single most dangerous animal inside.  For a while, the system tried to beat him by moving him from one prison to another, but his reputation soon grew wild enough that each new prison population welcomed him as a celebrity.  They tried to send him to a mental hospital (the Pet Shop Boys dance number is a stunner), but that only sharpened him as a weapon even more.  Eventually, the authorities had no choice but to release him.  They gave up, figuring the easiest thing to do would be to dump him back on the streets.

That was the biggest mistake of all.  He was only out for 68 days, but in that time, he took the final steps away from who he was and towards who he wanted to be.  He became an underground fighter, and he dumped his birth name in favor of a name that fit his new identity as a man so hard he could fight two pit bulls bare-handed, so violent that prison felt more like the "real world" to him than life outside.  It didn't take long for him to end up back inside, and if that evolution from man to animal was the whole story, there wouldn't be much point to the film.  For a while, nihilism is all you get, and while it's all stylish and disturbing, it seems like a bit of an empty ride at first.  A beautiful, memorable, empty bit of nastiness.

But what happened to Charlie Bronson once he was back in prison, once he discovered art through the intercession of a concerned prison social worker/art teacher (played by James Lance, best known from "Spaced" as Daisy's boyfriend Richard)... well, that's where the movie reveals its soul.  Art is an option that never would have existed for Michael Peterson, but for Charlie Bronson, it's one more attempt the system makes to dart-and-tag this wild thing.  And for some reason, this time he takes to it.  Art captures him and calms him.  Art actually seems to help.  Once again, he transforms... but into what?  What does a wild thing consider art?  Heady stuff, and I think it's accurate to compare the film to "A Clockwork Orange" in many ways:  the giddy rush of serio-comic violence, the way the main character deals with being reprogrammed by the system.  "Bronson" has its own voice, though.  And a big part of that... maybe the biggest part... is the performance by Thomas Hardy.

Here's why I never get hung up on awards and what they "mean":  there is no way Thomas Hardy's getting Oscar-nominated for this role.  No way, no how.  He spends what seems like half his onscreen time completely naked and either beating the shit out of people or having the shit beaten out of him.  That's not the sort of work the Academy is prepared to consider.  They're just not hip enough as a whole to wrap their heads around it.  But I doubt you'll see ten more dedicated performances by a male lead this year.  Or even five.  Or even two.  Thomas Hardy understands that this is a movie about a man whose first art was his body, and whose second art was his persona, and he embraced the theme of transformation.  Even if you've seen Hardy in films like "Black Hawk Down" or "Rock'n'Rolla" (he was Handsome Bob) or "Star Trek: Nemesis" (yep, he was the silly Picard clone), you've never seen the star of this film before.  He didn't exist until this movie, and he won't exist after.  Hardy isn't the star; Charlie Bronson is.  The entire film is his urgent appeal to you to never take your eyes off him.  Hardy is magnetic, a chiseled slab of raw meat, so ripped he's surreal.  And he works the camera like the emcee of some hellish vaudeville.  It's unforgettable work, and that's more important than any awards.

Nicolas Winding Refn is an exciting, intelligent director who tells a distasteful story about a distasteful character doing distasteful things, but he tells it with abundant visual wit and, yes, taste.  He makes the film compulsively watchable no matter how ugly it gets, no easy feat.  Larry Smith, the cinematographer, shoots the film with a perfect combination of energy and artistry.  Of all the films I saw at Sundance, "Bronson" is on the very short list of titles I'm 100% sure I will own on DVD.  It's a great, memorable, passionate movie,a nd a rib-breaking great ride besides.