Bronson (2008) and the “True Crime” Narrative

Posted: March 22, 2014 in Movies
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This is a video essay looking at how Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 action drama, Bronson, examines violence, masculinity, and the “true crime” narrative. As well as the voyeuristic gaze of the audience.


Charlie Bronson, “Britain’s most violent prisoner”, has spent 38 years beyond bars, most of it restricted to solitary confinement. Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 film is a dramatic recounting of Bronson’s life, and an example of the “true crime” narrative. True crime texts are generally inspired by media headlines, which reflect press and public obsessions with violent events and criminal personalities. They often reveal as much about the audience’s fascination with deviant and depraved acts, as they do about the deviant subjects themselves.

In the case of Charlie Bronson, neither the film, nor the man himself, attempts to explain his condition. In fact, the film goes out of its way to depict his peaceful home-life and loving parents. Bronson is depicted as a force of nature. He doesn’t have anger management issues. On the contrary, Bronson micro-manages his anger, and deploys it with maximum effect against the prison officers he encounters. He seems intent on committing violence for its own sake, and inciting chaos for its own ends. When asked what his demands are after taking a hostage, he cannot come up with an answer, replying simply “What have you got?” In other hostage situations Bronson has asked for items as trivial as a cup of tea, and even released hostages because they irritate him. However, Bronson often makes the point that while he is dangerous and harmful, he has never killed anyone. This alludes to an understanding that murder transgresses a moral code that he is unwilling to breach, and we as an audience are unwilling to forgive. It is also interesting to note that the one character in the film he does attempt to kill is a pedophile, alluding to a second cultural and moral transgression that even a criminal like Charlie Bronson is unable to abide.

Interspersed with the scenes of brutal prison life, are a series of surreal moments of Charlie, standing alone on a darkened stage, recounting his life story to an audience of captivated onlookers. He sees himself as a performer, complete with black suit and white face-paint. These sequences may indicate Bronson’s growing insanity, as if he is playing to an audience in his own head. On the other hand, we are watching him, both his character in the movie, and his real-life counterpart, in the form of news coverage and prison artwork. And as we gaze at him, he gazes right back at us. In this sense, the film is as much a critique on our motivations as Bronson’s. The question isn’t why is he doing these awful things, but why are we watching them? Why do we entertain ourselves with media depictions of violence, whether they be in the form of news reports, movies, sports or video games?

For the 69 days that Bronson is set free, he supports himself by taking part in illegal bare-knuckle boxing competitions. These scenes of organized violence clearly contrast with the scenes of chaotic violence enacted by Bronson during incarceration. Is one more civilized than the other? Is watching two men fight one another in a boxing ring, all that different from watching them fight in a prison cell? Why is the video game, Grand Theft Auto, which gives players the option to beat, rob and kill whomever the feel, one the most popular games ever released? One possibility is that these media expressions of violence give us (the audience) the chance to act out perverse fantasies of deviance, without the threat of punishment or repercussion. Likewise, the character of Bronson, acts as a conduit, through which the viewer is able to express some subconscious desire to commit violence, and have violence committed against them. A kind of sado-masochistic avatar.

The depiction of Bronson also provides comparison between the mythologised hyper-masculine prisoner, and the stunted, juvenile “inner child” archetype. With his shaven head and penchant for nudity, “Charlie often resembles a giant baby venting its fury”. His bizarre street clothing is a mixture of army officer and Victorian strongman, giving us the impression that this is how a young Charlie viewed masculinity, and that his early imprisonment denied him any genuine emotional progression into adulthood. This arrested development is again emphasized during his brief stint as a freedman, in which he is saddened to find out his mother threw away all of his childhood toys, including his old bed. While he has plenty to say for himself during his imaginary onstage monologues, off stage Charlie is inarticulate and oddly defenseless. While visiting his Uncle Jack on the outside, Charlie sits silently and stirs his drink, unable to interact with people socially and visibly intimidated by the sexual advances of his uncle’s female friends.

Charlie has been incarcerated for so long that he feels uncomfortable outside of a prison cell, and unable to communicate with people in any form other than violence. The scenes of violence are depicted with a sort of dreamy romanticism, often set to pieces of classical music, and slowed down to a point where the carnage takes on an almost ballet-like elegance. Bronson appears willfully ignorant of his actions, treating the brawls as if they were sequences in a comic book or an action film, rather than moments of pain and suffering for his victims. Like Bronson himself, the film invites us to revel in the chaos on display. This may speak to a sort of pop-culture desensitization to violence that has infected all of us, including Bronson, who emphasizes this by actually taking the name of an action movie star.

Works Cited

Bronson. DVD. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008. London, UK: Vertigo Films, 2009.

Mesaros, Mark, “Bronson,” in Cinelogue. Accessed October 10, 2012.

Scott, C.M., “Bronson,” Cinema da Merde. Accessed October 12, 2012.

Symonds, Gwyn, “‘It is a True Crime but it Might Not Have Happened’: Voyeurism and Fiction in the True Crime Narrative,” in The Aesthetics of Violence in Contemporary Media, (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2008), 80–110.

Wilson, Christopher P., “True and True(r) Crime: Cop Shops and Crime Scenes in the 1980s,” in American Literary History 9 (1997): 718–743.

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