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As a kid, Michael Peterson wasn’t all that different from the other kids in Luton, England. A bit of a troublemaker, maybe—but nothing serious. He was just a kid. Just like everybody else.

It wasn’t until he grew up (and had a wife and kid of his own) that Michael (played by Tom Hardy) finally found his true calling—his claim to fame. After attempting to rob a post office, Michael was sentenced to seven years in prison. But instead of quietly doing his time, Michael became a kind of celebrity: Britain’s most violent prisoner.

Based on the shockingly true story of the man who now calls himself Charlie Bronson, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson follows this unsettlingly captivating character throughout his three decades of violence, as he’s moved from prison to prison and from hospital to hospital.

Hardy is nothing short of brilliant as the infamous inmate. His performance is so mesmerizing, in fact, that you won’t be able to take your eyes off him—no matter how desperately you’ll want to look away. Bronson considers himself a celebrity. A performer, perhaps. And Hardy captures the spirit of the character’s strength and arrogance—and even his madness—so well that you’ll often forget that you’re watching an actor, not the man himself. When he delivers his lines, unblinkingly, directly into the camera, it’s sure to send a chill down your spine.

Unfortunately, though, Bronson doesn’t give many insights into the character or his actions. And while the storytelling has a simple but spellbinding style, it’s sometimes short on facts. But that’s understandable. After all, Bronson really is a sort of celebrity in his home country—where his violent acts have often made headlines and groups organize protests to demand that he be released. British viewers most likely already know a thing or two about Bronson’s various hostage situations and attacks on prison guards. For that reason, Refn doesn’t need to replay every last detail for them; they’ve already seen it all. For those of us who haven’t seen the headlines or read the stories, however, it’s sometimes difficult to sort it all out (especially his apparently noteworthy stay at the Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane—which is depicted with just one short clip).

Still, Bronson offers a memorable look at a troubled character, who managed to turn violence (and madness) into celebrity. Thanks to Hardy’s outstanding performance, it’s eerie and haunting from beginning to end.

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