Cinematic Soulmates: Bronson and A Clockwork Orange
Hey, what do you know? I’m back! Summer is upon us, which means I should have some time to crank out a few more of these here columns. To get back into the swing of things, I decided to write something simple that is somewhat based on the research I’ve been doing for my grad school thesis. That is why today I’m going to lay out the case for why director Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterful biopic Bronson (2008) should be considered the spiritual successor to Stanley Kubrick’s classic big screen adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1971), based on the book by Anthony Burgess. Let’s begin, shall we?
Bronson is based on the true story of Michael Peterson, who often refers to himself as the “most violent prisoner in Britain.” At the age of 17, Peterson is sentenced to seven years in prison for robbing a post office, but he winds up serving 30 years in solitary confinement instead. During this time, Peterson competes in underground fighting tournaments under the alias of Charles Bronson. In Refn’s film, Tom Hardy plays the larger than life thug with over-the-top glee, in a performance that critic Jonathan Romney describes as “thunderously eccentric” in his review of Refn’s follow-up film, Valhalla Rising (2009). According to Romney, as embodied by Hardy, “Bronson is sometimes a roaring juggernaut, at others a primping dandy or a big whining baby.” He’s totally correct in that assessment, as Peterson exaggeratedly struts through the film, imposing his aggressive, almost comical masculinity on everyone he comes into contact with. He’s like a child with too much power, bullying everyone around him, but then throwing a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way.
Anyway, Refn avoids all of the standard biopic pitfalls by opting to tell the story in an unconventional manner. He has Peterson tell his own story directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall whenever possible. There are scenes when Peterson is on stage performing, which, when combined with his already inflated sense of self, lends his entire persona a very theatrical aspect. However, he is charming enough to get the audience on his side, and this is important, since we see him doing some very nasty things. Nevertheless, by the time Peterson winds up in a tiny cage that is barely large enough to contain his bulging body, it’s hard not to be a bit saddened over his fate, while simultaneously feeling totally relieved that this maniac has finally been contained.
Meanwhile, in A Clock Work Orange, Stanley Kubrick introduces viewers to Alexander DeLarge (played with seductive menace by Malcolm McDowell), a similarly charming degenerate who spends his days engaging in the old ultraviolence with his band of droogs in a dystopian future London. When he’s not giving some weepy young devotchka a bit of the old in-out, he’s mixing it up with other gangs, such as the one led by his arch-nemesis, who Alex refers to as “fat stinking billy goat Billy Boy.” However, Alex has not been the most magnanimous of leaders, and one day his three droogs, Pete, Georgie, and Dim, decide they’ve had enough of Alex’s abuse. After a botched heist in which Alex accidentally kills an old woman, his troops conk him over the head with a milk bottle, and they leave him for the police. Alex is sent to prison, where he undergoes a radical new technique designed to reform criminals through chemical and psychological means. Alex is released from prison, but soon discovers that he is now trapped in a new one. He has been completely stripped of his free will, and can no longer choose to be good or bad. Thus, Alex is no longer really a man, but rather a sort of human automaton, one who can merely act according to his new programming.
On the surface, both films may appear to be very different, but when looked at a little closer, it becomes obvious that they are exploring a lot of the same themes and issues. For instance, both films feature unreliable narrators who are highly charming men yet are actually rather awful human beings. However, we come to be on their side due to the fact that they are telling their story directly to the audience, and making sure that they come off as totally sympathetic (even when the visual imagery directly contradicts their claims). Having these less than virtuous protagonists narrate their own stories is a brilliant move, as most viewers would probably find both of these men to be completely repulsive were it not for their narration, which immediately puts us on their side, but even then only reluctantly. Thankfully, both characters are charming and well-spoken, not to mention played by incredible actors who deliver powerhouse performances, and just happen to be rather handsome and sexy (in a dangerous way). Thus, their seductive personalities obscure their violent natures, and this allows them to appeal to viewers rather than alienate them. All this while still being a couple of completely amoral and terrible guys.
Similarly, there is an exploration of the nature of choice in each film. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex is stripped of his ability to choose after he undergoes the Ludovico Technique, which essentially chemically and mentally castrates his violent and sexual impulses. No longer can Alex choose to be violent and aggressive. Instead, he gets ferociously ill whenever he feels a strong violent or sexual impulse. Unfortunately, the scientists who subjected him to this technique also managed to kill Alex’s enjoyment of Beethoven in the process. In fact, it seems as though any sort of powerful emotion leads to Alex being overcome by a powerful sickness, and thus he is no longer a man. He has been reduced to the clockwork orange of the title; in appearance he is a man, but in practice, he is simply a being programmed to live according to a specific set of behaviors.
An analogous fate befalls Michael Peterson at one point during Bronson, when he is transferred from the prison where he thrives to a mental institution. There, he is pumped full of a cocktail of drugs that leave him in a near-catatonic state, unable to move, dress, eat, or even think for himself. Peterson has also been stripped of his ability to choose, and thus he has also been stripped of his manhood. The concept of masculinity is a big theme in both films, but it is central to the narrative of Bronson. By turning Peterson into a drooling, totally dependent mess and stripping him of his violent impulses, he completely ceases to be a man (at least according to traditional notions of gender norms). Much like Alexander DeLarge, Michael Peterson is eventually “cured” of this suppression of his impulses, and he goes right back to being a violent, competitive, and angry individual. Whereas A Clockwork Orange celebrates the return of Alex’s violent and sexual impulses as triumphant (albeit in a satirical sense), Bronson goes in the opposite direction, arguing that if someone like Michael Peterson cannot be cured, he should at the very least be locked up, contained, and kept separate from decent society. The film celebrates the ability to choose even as it acknowledges the consequences that come from making those choices.
Finally, both films are united by a similar style, which results from Kubrick’s influence on Refn’s directorial aesthetic. While it may not be quite as apparent here as it is in some of his other films (check out the bizarre hotel fever dream sequence toward the end of Fear X  for further proof), it can definitely be seen in the choices Refn made in terms of music, editing and camera work. For instance, classical music is a major motif in each film, with Alex in A Clockwork Orange being an avowed fan of Ludwig Van (Beethoven, natch), while in Bronson the scenes of Michael Peterson’s violent outbursts are scored to the timeless strains of Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini. Similarly, each film uses slow motion to sort of luxuriate in the violence perpetrated by each character, presenting it as something that is at once breathtaking and horrible, and forcing the viewer to take in every punch, kick, and slash of the knife. Finally, both characters often peer directly into the camera, staring out of the film and right at the audience, so as to implicate the viewer in the crimes that are taking place in each film. It is as if both Refn and Kubrick are saying to the viewer that if you are sympathetic to these awful characters, or any like them, then you are complicit in what they are doing. It is a powerful cinematic technique, and one that is every bit as upsetting as it is involving.
Ultimately, while there have been many charismatic reprobates throughout cinematic history, Alexander DeLarge and Michael Peterson are the two who are most alike, even though on the surface they appear to be quite different. Alex is small and calculating, while Peterson is massive and explosive. However, they both have a powerful charisma that makes them appealing even as they are being violent and dangerous. Additionally, they are well-spoken individuals who use words to hide their own terrible natures. This is what sets them apart from countless other screen sociopaths, and what unites them as cinematic soul mates.