A Cliff's Notes Clockwork
There's a great movie about a British kid who's so unhinged, so violent and deranged that the authorities have no choice but to lock him up, alter his brain chemistry, and hope for the best. Once re-introduced to polite society, he finds himself unable to cope with normalcy and winds up back in the system. That movie is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
Unfortunately, I'm here to talk about Bronson, a film so right in terms of casting, production design and cinematography that it's a shame director Nicolas Winding Refn wasted his talents on a half-baked, unofficial remake. Here's the deal: I have no problem with someone remaking A Clockwork Orange. Though it's an amazing film--a bona fide classic--I'd never slight someone for giving it another go. I'd be the first in line to mock the hell out of their failed efforts, sure, but I would also scream my praises from the virtual mountaintops if that were called for.
Refn's movie isn't a futuristic fable about totalitarianism and bent youth culture. It's another "Based on a True Story" picture that details the life of legendary criminal Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy). In the mid-70s, he went to prison for assault and discovered that he could make a name for himself by beating up the most people and causing more damage than any inmate in history. We're meant to believe that Peterson had always wanted to be famous, despite never having cultivated actual talents like acting or singing. Refn and co-writer Brock Norman Brock play up this angle a bit too much in an effort to shoehorn in the popular "Famous for Being Famous" meme.
The film has three main problems. The first is its timeline. We're never quite sure what year the story takes place in. I found out that Peterson went up the river in in 1974 (at age 19) through a Wikipedia search. He spent several years in the system, transferring from prison to prison because no one could handle his tendency to pummel inmates and staff to a bloody pulp. At one point, he's sent to a mental institution, where he's pumped full of drugs. He somehow gets himself off the drugs and strangles a pedophile, which leads to a 26-year sentence in a new, high-security prison. According to his narration, Peterson did the whole stint and was eventually released.
Let's consider that Peterson would have been in his 50s at the time of parole. Would he still look like a 31-year-old Tom Hardy? It's possible, but I seriously doubt it. The filmmakers make no pains to show the passage of time in his actors or even to their environment. They're so wrapped up in their wacky Kubrick aesthetic that Bronson feels more like a fantasy than something that was ripped from the headlines.
Maybe that's what they were going for; but it makes our second problem, the "Based on a True Story" angle, much stickier. Peterson is a cartoon character, a raging brawl-junky who fancies himself a charismatic entertainer. He will literally do anything to get attention--from holding his art therapy teacher and the prison librarian hostage to leading an inmate revolt and scaling the roof of the building they've set on fire. If you watch Bronson the same way you watch porn, then the plot mechanics don't matter at all: the whole experience is just a series of exciting bits bridged by filler. But for those of us expecting "True Story" movies to resemble real events--or at least attempt to explain the bizarre things we're asked to accept--Bronson is a frustrating exercise in tedium.
Why, for example, were a librarian and an art teacher allowed to be alone in a room with a guy who'd built a decades-long reputation as a cross between Hannibal Lecter and The Incredible Hulk? How was Peterson able to stage the fire and lead a gang of criminals out of the prison? And, lastly, how am I supposed to believe that the government's solution to dealing with their most unstable convict was to simply set him free?
That's right, late in the film, Peterson is released because the people in charge had run out of ideas. He made it 69 days on the outside before knocking over a jewelry store and getting hauled back in. Which begs yet another question: Why was he let go if the plan was to simply arrest him after his (inevitable) next offense?
These logical lapses are stunning; frankly, I expected better from an indie movie that's garnered so much praise over the years. It's sad to say, but the best way to fully enjoy Bronson is to turn off your brain.
Ah, but what about the alluring, dangerous charms of Tom Hardy? I give the actor a lot of credit. He's attractive, energetic, and built like a brick shithouse. But my problem (number three for those keeping count) with his take on Peterson goes back to the screenplay. Hardy isn't called upon to do anything interesting, outside of the nicely choreographed but way-too-numerous fight scenes. His character's M.O. is to narrate his story blankly to the camera, and, at very predictable junctures, punctuate disturbing passages with a wide, Joker-esque grin. Peterson is mostly cunning, with very little intelligence; and he doesn't have a character arc. He begins the film as an unsympathetic psychopath and ends it the same way.
What makes A Clockwork Orange so superior is that its protagonist, Alex DeLarge, was a witty, psychopathic genius who came to several crossroads on his journey to enlightenment. By the end of that film, the audience is left with several questions about who he's become and what key moments changed him from the wily punk who began the story (the novel's original ending left even more room for debate). As the lead, Malcom McDowell made the viewer understand him and kind of like him, even though many people found his actions to be unconscionable.
Despite the cute interstitial segments that take place in Peterson's mind (in which he performs in front of a theatre audience, dressed as a suited clown), we never get to know him. He's as interesting as a reality TV star but, as his actions bear out, is exponentially more desperate and unlikeable.
Bronson might have had a chance if the creators had given Peterson someone to connect with, or even a formidable foil, but he simply bounces off the other characters like the world's most obnoxious pinball. Only Jonny Phillips as the Prison Governor at Peterson's final residence offers any true resistance, calling the man ridiculous at their first meeting ("pathetic" at their second). Still, this is Peterson's show; by definition, no one is allowed to steal the spotlight from his lovable, terrorist escapades.
I'll never be able to prove this hunch, but I'd wager Refn filtered his "true story" through the Clockwork Orange motif as a way of disguising the fact that he really didn't have a story to begin with. A documentary on Peterson would have, I'm sure, been fascinating, but you can't make ninety-minutes with a dead-eyed scrapper compelling, outside of a Mixed Martial Arts tournament. Refn tries his best, aping Kubrick's story beats and use of classical music. But the most interesting thing about Peterson is that he adopted the moniker "Charles Bronson" while serving time. Even that was someone else's idea, though; so, yeah, there's nothing here to see, folks.