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Shock to the System: Antichrist and Bronson

The Stop Smiling Review

L: Antichrist; R: Tom Hardy as Bronson

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Antichrist
Directed by Lars von Trier
(IFC Films)

Bronson
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
(Magnet Releasing)

Reviewed by Steve Dollar

Lars von Trier has said that Antichrist was made out of the psychological tar pit of a grave depression, that it was an artistic lifeline when he felt unsure that he would ever make another film again. This could explain some of the outrageously nasty torments visited on its only characters: a historian writing a book on witchcraft (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her psychiatrist husband (Willem Dafoe). In an opening sequence — so lushly imagined in creamy black-and-white that you’d think the fiercely ascetic von Trier was spoofing something — the couple are enjoying vigorous sex as their unattended boy toddler crawls out the window and falls to a snowy slo-mo death.

The woman goes nearly catatonic with grief and guilt, and the man decides they need to return to their rustic retreat to enact a therapeutic regime. It’s a cabin deep in a Pacific Northwest forest that von Trier, in one of his typically cruel ironies, calls “Eden.” Here, Gainsbourg’s character, seized by fits of nymphomania and rage, is supposed to conquer her fears as the fatuous hubby appears to make dodgy decisions regarding her medication. But, “nature is Satan’s church” we are told, and von Trier’s camera relishes the ever-more primordial wood where, much as in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the owls are not what they seem. And neither are the other fauna.

What happens next? As announced, with death-metal flourish, by a talking fox that Dafoe happens upon: “Chaos reigns.”

Love that Lars. He’s gone Mister Ed on our ass. For most viewers, this is the moment that Antichrist either jumps the rails or achieves true twisted genius. Or both. Either way, given the perverse, often sadistic humor in which von Trier trades, it’s permission to not take the rest of the movie as seriously as Dafoe and Gainsbourg take their performances. Is that good or bad? The actors deliver a visceral and bughouse-intense variation on Ingmar Bergman marriage-is-hell psychodramas, even as von Trier evokes the haunted quality of Bergman’s medieval allegories (throwing in a shot of Dafoe’s head against a charcoal horizon that echoes Max Von Sydow in The Seventh Seal). The actors’ insane commitment to insane material about insanity — cloaked in malignant fog, intimations of ancient necromancy, and cameos from residents of Satan’s petting zoo — might have registered as a good old bravura in one of von Trier’s austere Dogme 95 exercises. But Antichrist insists on both a fevered visual lushness and instances of genital mutilation and extreme hobbling that audiences only expect to see in torture-porn franchises like Saw or on underground S&M websites, as featured in the new documentary Graphic Sexual Horror. It’s hard to correlate.

Von Trier admits he has no idea what any of this shit means, but only a filmmaker of his skill could make such an inchoate mess so strangely entertaining.

Brutal by fact and design, Bronson is even more gory and self-abusive than Antichrist. And it’s virtually a one-man show. Tom Hardy, an actor whose body is a muscularly sculpted human battering ram, gives an Oscar-bait performance as the title character — a notorious hellraiser who might as well have “Chaos reigns” tattooed on his forehead. Bronson, born Michael Gordon Peterson, adopted the name of the tough-guy actor in the process of becoming Britain’s best-known prison inmate, a man so reflexively — joyously! — violent,  he’s been kept in solitary confinement for 30 of his 34 years of incarceration. It’s a terrific persona to build a movie around, and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher trilogy) gets every ounce of sweat from Hardy, who plays the dangerously charismatic Bronson as an Olympian god with a bent for Shakespearean flourish and the instincts of a low-level gangster meathead.

In real life, Bronson was a bare-knuckled boxer, sideshow strongman and petty hoodlum whose prison career has been highlighted by hostage-taking, assault, and other incidents rife with colorful outrage that supply much of the action in Refn’s film. Whether much of the narrative is true or not is less the point than the theatrical flair with which it has been imagined. Hardy embodies this bruiser, with his bald, beaming head and handlebar moustache, as a pure performance artist — frequently shown addressing an audience from the stage of his own mind (not unlike George C. Scott in Patton). The grandiloquent delivery is captivating, but as with much else about the film, all too hermetic. Refn’s minimalist approach exaggerates Bronson’s sheer physicality as force of nature and will to power. Yet, it skimps on any larger context that might illuminate the character as more than the sum of his public myth and the filmmaker’s poetic license. The movie’s giddy brio can leave you punch-drunk, and oddly unsatisfied.

 

 

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