In the final lines of the chapter “The spectacle of the scaffold”, in his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault writes about a great shift in the portrayal of criminals in fiction, which took place in the 19th century: “We are far removed indeed from those accounts of the life and misdeeds of the criminal in which he admitted his crimes, and which recounted in detail the tortures of his execution: we have moved from the exposition of the facts or the confession to the slow process of discovery; from the execution to the investigation; from the physical confrontation to the intellectual struggle between criminal and investigator.”
In other words, the spectacle of the scaffold and the portrayal of the criminal as some kind of a heroic monster alluring to the masses, gives way to detective fiction. It is obvious that in the 20th century something has changed dramatically, and Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange is a prime example. In this film, which is known wide enough not to be discussed at length, we observe Alex and his companions while they jubilantly commit antisocial and criminal acts which include murder, severe beatings etc. After that, we witness the confessions of the criminal again, the details of him being tortured in a scientific experiment etc. (all the things Foucault noticed to be absent in detective fiction).
The film was regarded as controversial upon its release, since it was seen as a celebration of “ultra violence”, as Alex himself calls it, and probably the most famous film critic around, Rogert Ebert, wrote a 1 star review of the film, emphasizing the same problems. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson walks a similar path as Kubrick’s film; film critic Andrew O’Hehir wrote the following in his review: “Bronson owes a little or a lot to Kubrick’s ‘Clockwork Orange’, but if that’s a crime I wish more people would commit it.”
Kubrick himself once said: “The criminal and the soldier at least have the virtue of being against something or for something in the world where many people have learned to accept a kind of grey nothingness…” It is interesting to observe Alex and Charles Bronson, Britain’s most violent criminal, as they are portrayed in Kubrick’s and Refn’s films, in this light. They are both criminals, who claim to have principles, at least Bronson does, but they are both utterly nihilistic and the only thing which defines them is being antisocial and destructive toward society.
Sociopathic criminals have been portrayed in cinema before, but their confessions and focus on their “authentic” personalities, their sufferings at the hands of the system, were never portrayed so extensively as in these two films. It is symptomatic that both Bronson and Clockwork Orange were made in the UK, the very place where some of the most revolutionary penal reforms took place in the 19th century, in the country which gave us Sherlock Holmes, the sovereign figure of detective fiction.
For Kubrick, Alex may be a virtuoso, but not virtous, and it seems that Refn understands Bronson in the similar fashion. Kubrick’s stance can be a bit puzzling, since he also said: “I’ve got a peculiar weakness for criminals and artists, neither takes life as it is.” It is interesting to interpret Bronson’s character along that line, since he combines criminal behavior with some sort of twisted artistic sense. It must be noted that I shall leave all the subsequent moralizations on the subject to the viewer, since this is not a moralistic piece, but a short overview of Refn’s film.
At the very beginning of the film, Bronson states his goal – he wants to be famous. He does not have any real talent, so he becomes a violent criminal. He is shown at a theatre, alone at the stage, playing some kind of a Pirandellian character who plays a certain character in a play (film in this case) he is part of. Bronson jokingly says that he does not want to “misrepresent” himself, but since he acts as if he is aware of the fact that he is playing a part in a play, this is ludicrous.
He speaks of “better things” he envisions for himself, says that he has a “calling”. Lights are low, blues music plays, the red color appears and all is set for a showdown. The beatings shown are highly aestheticized, his face shows traits of a psychotic character, but this is merely for the purposes of a show. That’s what life is for Bronson, a stage where he can perform as someone exceptional. Well, he is exceptional, at beating people up.
We can see a stereotyped portrayal of the childhood of a soon to be a criminal. It is full of cliches when it comes to mentioning that his family was rather ordinary, that he had an ordinary life; in other words, Refn wants to highlight that he did not have any “classical” predispositions to become a criminal, he just wanted to become one. Bronson speaks of his principles, as was mentioned earlier, but this is only a travesty, as it can be seen throghout the film. He worked at a fast food restaurant and we can see, in an overemphasized manner (for stylistic purposes), that he attracts women with some kind of pure animality.
The reason why fictionalized criminals, with their confessions and their stories, are so attractive to the audiences, especially in films, is their completely uncontrolled id, speaking in Freudian terms. Their instincts are unleashed, without any control of the superego, which terrorizes “ordinary” people on a daily basis. It is somewhat “relaxing” to observe someone with complete freedom of action, without restraints imposed on the “normal people”. Bronson compared himself to a rock ‘n’ roll star, a persona French writer Michel Houellebecq termed as someone who is, like Mick Jagger for instance, a personification of the unpunished evil which people admire.
Thus, the practices of the disciplinary apparatus are deconstructed and all that’s left is a regression to the earlier phase of penal practice – a fight between the criminal and prison authorities (organs of disciplinary power, now seemingly impotent). This fighting and brawling doesn’t last for long since Bronson is transferred to the asylum and given pills and injections which finally make him a docile, drooling, pitiful human being. Bronson calls it “the funny farm”.
Disciplinary power, for the moment, wins the joust. Bronson attempts murder, and is again transferred to the ordinary prison. He sets the prison on fire, as we can see, costs the British state millions of pounds, and since he is rather costly to the system, they let him out of the prison.At this point, it must be noted that Bronson spent 26 years in solitary confinement, the practice recommended for all prisoners during the 19th century penal reforms in the U.S. (the Philadelphia model, to be precise), but was rejected because of the danger of causing insanity. It is a wonder that Bronson did not go completely mad due to such a respectable number of years in solitary confinement, but this is just one of the many suprises he has in store for us.
When Bronson comes out of prison, joyful techno music plays, his property is returned – a symbolic act of a bourgeoise society which acknowledges that he is once again a free individual – he visits his uncle, most likely a criminal; red color dominates the scene again. The woman Bronson falls in love with wears a red dress; when they are on the sofa and she caresses him, Bronson struggles with the temptation to beat her up – his fist shakes.
Bronson gets on a train and a woman asks him what he was doing earlier; he answers: I was building an empire. This kind of dellusion is particularly interesting; he says that he rides the train to kill the queen. As the reader can guess, Bronson soon lands in prison again, after robbing a jewelry store with the intention to propose to his girlfriend with the loot, who is in love with another man – she tells Bronson that he has no ambition.
In the next prison, or hotel as Bronson says, the prison superintendant seems to be more aware of Bronson’s character than the previous ones were. Bronson takes a hostage and a particularly humorous scene takes place in a phone call with the superintendent who asks Bronson what he wants. Bronson does not really know what he wants so he asks: “What have you got?” His usual answers are particularly well-versed, mostly consisting of a sentence: “Fuck off.”
Superintendent calls his behaviour “mindless, nihilistic, godless”, and surely it is. Bronson is a criminal who, in the end, is not some kind of a romanticized criminal who fights for his principles like those in Schiller’s work for example; he is a criminal who posseses the same hollow nothingness in his soul, as the Parisians in Cioran’s autobiographical work do, but this nothingness is masked with some kind of mindless machist revolt.
When it finally seems that disciplinary apparatus knows what to do with Bronson, they give him crayons so he can draw and create… something. Reeducation and transformation seem to take place, but only for a short while. Bronson takes a hostage once again, and with his artistic tools, he makes some kind of a twisted clown of him. The face of the man resembles a doll and he has an apple in his mouth; it is an aestheticized parody of… something. He strips naked, puts on “war paint” and does the only thing he can do in life, he beats up more guards. The question remains, what does Charles Bronson want? This is an enigma; nothing and everything at the same time.