The film Bronson, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn who co-wrote the script with Brock Norman Brock, is on paper a biopic of Michael Peterson, a man who has been in prisons and institutions for the criminally insane for the most of the years since his imprisonment in 1974, at age 19, for holding up a post office; but it is not at all the kind of biopic that explains what made its subject into the man he became. It is the kind of biopic that presents its subject as a force unknowable, someone who commands our attention for 92 terrifying minutes and reveals nothing of himself, remaining ungodly pleased with his monstrous opacity. For that matter, I can't say that I'd want to get to know Peterson any more than that: he is a being of savage, animal brutality, and just bearing witness to his actions is a draining, awful experience. Adding in to that mix a close study of the inside of his brain would almost be more intense than it would be possible to bear.

Peterson, who adopted for himself the name "Charles Bronson" in honor of that actor and his iconic turn in Death Wish, is called "Britain's most famous prisoner" in a title card at the end of the movie, and one gets the clear sense from the evidence onscreen that this is as agreeable a fate as he could have possibly chosen for himself; it seems indeed that the only motivation he has in life is to be infamous, whether it is among inmates, prison guards, or the population at large. I don't know if you could call it a framework narrative per se, but the story is structured so that large portions of the film are described from the perspective of Bronson standing on a stage in front of a deeply appreciative audience, recollecting incidents from his life and occasionally acting them out. It seems reasonably safe to assume that most of what we see is spun from the circa-2008 recollections that he has of the previous 34 years, especially because he does not seem to age in all that time, but to always be the 53-year-old version of himself, even in his flashbacks, suggesting maybe that he regards his life as an eternal present, made up of an endless stream of choices made in the now with little regard to where he is coming from or what his choices might mean for the future.

There was no possible way for a protagonist thus conceived to be anything but a cipher - no, that's a word with negative connotations. There is no internal "there" there, but his actions define him far too much to consider him a blank surface. Perhaps what we're seeing is, in fact, characterisation - the perfect, unmarred id let loose to torment and destroy. No matter the case, though, it was surely a devilishly hard role to play, and that makes the work of actor Tom Hardy all the more impressive, one of the best performances of the year, maybe. It is certainly one of the most committed. We see one scene after another of Bronson, naked and covered in body paint and grease, roaring at the police and defying them to administer yet another beatdown in the hopes of maybe, this time, subduing the raging thing that has come into their prison, one does not merely note with admiration his fearless embrace of the physical extremes of the role, one begins to worry for his sanity.

Winding Refn's treatment of the material makes the perhaps necessary choice to put a box around Hardy's howl-from-hell performance, sometimes literally - some of the most arresting images in the movie are of Bronson in a cage hardly big enough to contain him standing. But I am referring more to the film's stylised compositions, giving Bronson a formal rigor that keeps the action at a distance from us, although even this does not always mean that it is a comfortable distance: in moments like the opening shot, with Bronson's face dead center in a field of black, it has rather the opposite effect, trapping us alone in a void with this man. But those moments are exceptional, and always find Bronson in his moments of greatest (relative) tranquility - when he is at his most violent or angriest, that is when Winding Refn and his cinematographer Larry Smith break out the heavily formalist frames-within-frames, and when the soundtrack blares to life, full of pulsating Wagner pieces and angry '80s electronic music.

The combination of horrific violence, soaring music, and chilly stylistic precision that makes the whole thing feel like an experiment can only naturally call to mind A Clockwork Orange, which is in all ways a much better film. That said, Winding Refn's aesthetic owes more to the collective work of Stanley Kubrick than just that one film - and in that connection, it is surely worth pointing out that Larry Smith worked on the sets of Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, if the IMDb does not lie to me - and for any modern filmmaker to earn a comparison to Kubrick, even if that comparison ends with "aye, but he's not nearly as good at it", is an achievement in and of itself, demonstrating a clinical relationship towards his misanthropic subject matter that is not at all in style right now, if indeed it ever was.

Now, while I very much respect what Winding Refn and his crew, and Tom Hardy above all, have achieved here, I am at a loss to answer one question: why bother? The film makes no arguments about Bronson the real-life man, rightly I think, and makes certain that we understand his particularly breed of violence is particular to him and him alone - rather, to the fictionalised movie construct based upon him. At the end of the movie, it's hard to say what we've experienced beyond a harrowing vision of a truly brutal man, and while it's impossible to argue that it makes no impact, it still seems to me that the impact is primarily a nihilistic one: the movie is distressing to experience, without any explanation of why. By all means, the achievement of getting to that place is undeniable, but it makes Bronson a tremendously difficult film to recommend, even if there's nothing about its aesthetic that I can criticise in any particular way.