The common view of a psychopath is that of a serial killer; a person who kills in high numbers over a long period of time and lacks remorse for their violent crimes. An incomprehensible threat to society and everyday life; a charming, intelligent but lethal monster in human form. This may be true for some psychopaths, however, psychopathy is not typically classified as a compulsion to kill; not all psychopaths are murderers. Mainstream film production has focused on the serial killer psychopath, portraying an image of pure evil unable to fight their addiction to murder; enforcing the moral code, the difference between good and evil, onto the audience. This loyalty to the stereotypical presentation of the psychopath has made it near impossible to reference psychopathy without the image of murder infecting the discourse. Due to this, there are very limited examples of psychopaths in mainstream cinema that are not serial killers, or murderers at the very least, however, one rebellious Brit Pop film of the 1990’s infiltrated a non-murderous psychopath into its narrative; Francis Begbie in Danny Boyle’s TRAINSPOTTING.
In 1996, the British film scene saw an invasion of a likeable group of heroin addicts and violent thugs who injected (excuse the pun) a new lease of life into the classic film industry. This group were the stars of Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, TRAINSPOTTING, who would go on to return in 2017 sequel T2: TRAINSPOTTING. The original film depicts the life of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Tommy and Begbie as each of them goes through varying difficulties, from addiction to life as a fugitive. The dark topics and themes covered in the narrative are presented intelligently and humorously with an energetic feel that does not match the desperate situations the protagonists often find themselves in. Heroin addiction and its effect on the group’s lives is of particular prominence in the film, however, it is worth focusing on the presentation of the psychopathic and violent tendencies of Begbie. His character presents an interesting opportunity for the analysis of psychopathy in everyday life. Begbie is an incredibly violent, narcissistic, yet charming individual who manages to escape judgement from his society. Begbie can be confirmed with this diagnosis by analysing scenes in which his psychopathic nature is revealed. The influence of his surroundings is also clear, as the society portrayed, in both the novel and the film, was one which ‘cast an angry backward glance at the social exclusion, stagnation and decay that characterised great swathes of Thatcher’s divided Britain’. In other words, a discussion of the nature versus nurture debate is prominent in any serious analysis of a psychopath and, therefore, must be referred to in relation to Begbie.
Begbie is introduced to the audience as he slide tackles, and presumably injures, an opposition player during a football match. Following which he laughs and then proceeds to yell obscenities at his own goalkeeper, Spud. Quite the entrance. Shortly after, whilst the group of friends are drinking in a bar, Begbie humours them with a tale to further propagate his image as the talented, real ‘hard man’. The story goes that whilst he was ‘givin’ the boy here [Tommy] a tannin’ of a lifetime’ at a game of a pool, a fellow ‘hard man’ entered the bar. According to Begbie, he managed to scare off this man and won the game of pool. Through his saturated use of curse words, overtly aggressive persona and narcissistic retelling of this supposed incident during a game of pool, he creates an image of himself as a man not to be crossed. Begbie’s story of glory is revealed to be completely untrue as Tommy refutes this wild tale during a conversation with Renton. This conversation reveals that Begbie lost his temper and attacked a young boy sitting in the bar, accusing this anonymous character of distracting him during the pool game.
Through Tommy’s flashback, the audience can see how uncontrollable and terrifying Begbie really is as he wields a blade, not only at the victim but also at Tommy. In the dimly lit and quiet bar scene, Begbie appears animalistic and volatile. His face rippled with anger and his crouched posture as he turns violently towards his own friend exposes his uncontrollable predator-like instincts. This display, however violent, does not appear to be out of place. There is no effort to dismiss Begbie or question his actions.
His compulsion to act violently when his ego is threatened displays his inability to act calmly. He has no reason to attack the young boy but he feels he has to as a way to protect his image. He uses his violence to better himself, to prove himself as a ‘hard man’, as someone not to be crossed. He pushes this image of himself but his insecurity creates a great deal of self-distress when this image is threatened; this self-distress resulted in his violent outburst. His actions reveal his impulsivity, poor behavioural controls and irresponsibility. His re-envisioning of the events displays his ‘grandiose sense of self-worth’ and an inability to accept responsibility for his actions. His labelling of his own person influences his actions; if he had not seen himself as a ‘hard man’, his violent outbursts may not have occurred because he would not have been trying to protect an image. These characteristics are fundamental in the diagnosis of a psychopath and therefore this sequence in the film alone could confirm Begbie’s condemnation to that label. The events during the game of pool and Begbie’s reimagined view of them does not further the plot of the film and instead serves to characterise Begbie, to aid the audience in their realisation that this self-confessed ‘hard man’ is not as simple a character as the first introductions may have suggested.
Immediately after this sequence, another side to Begbie’s psychopathic nature is portrayed. He throws his pint glass over the bannister of a busy bar which results in a woman being severely injured. He runs down to the scene of his crime exclaiming that nobody can leave the premises until they find out who was the culprit of this unmotivated assault. A large fight amongst the majority of customers in the bar ensues due to Begbie, who is in the middle of the violence. After he was finished with his drink and his story, he needed violent ‘stimulation’. This scene acts to confirm his tendencies but also his addiction to violence; as Renton describes it, ‘he just did people. That’s what he got off on. His own sensory addiction.’ His friends are aware of his need for violence and that such acts give him positive emotions. His behaviours are not unnoticed by those around him but they are not condemned either.
Begbie’s surroundings permit his behaviour to continue and they do not require him to conform to social norms; unlike the majority of psychopaths that are often required to blend in with mainstream society. The dive bars, the drug addicted and poverty-stricken environment Begbie inhabits has normalised violence and instead of condemning it, expects it. This film is not a critique of the people but instead of the governance that has allowed this to take place; a society where young men can be addicted to heroin, where AIDS can spread like wildfire, where a violent psychopath can act out whenever he feels like it and where a baby can die while the people taking care of it are too deep into their addiction to realise their responsibility. The sad state of affairs in this society is homely to a psychopath like Begbie; there are no repercussions of his actions and he does not have to control his volatile nature because no one around him cares enough.
The true level of Begbie’s violent psychopathy is eventually revealed near the end of the film but the lead up to this final outburst is of equal importance. Renton manages to escape his life in Edinburgh and start a career for himself in London. This escape is ruined by the arrival of Begbie who is on the run after an armed robbery with a replica gun. Begbie uses his aura as the ‘hard man’ to intimidate Renton into allowing him to live in his home and provide for him. Renton never explicitly states that he is fearful of Begbie but the way he allows him to infiltrate his home and disrespect his private space clearly highlights the level of dominance Begbie has created. Begbie displays a manipulative side of himself which is often considered a trademark of a psychopath, using others for their own personal gain. In this case, Begbie is using Renton for shelter.
Living together does not appear to damage their friendship, however, this quickly changes after an incident on a night out. Begbie mistakenly assumed the sex of a fellow clubber and engaged in an intimate moment in the front seat of a car. When he discovered that his new acquaintance had male genitalia, Begbie ran from the car and took his frustrations out on a wall and revealed the fragility of his masculinity and of his persona. Begbie confided in Renton about the incident which resulted in Renton mocking him. Begbie’s insecurity about the legitimacy of his self-identity as the ‘hard man’ sees Renton’s mocking as a threat. This threat to his self-identity, again, incites a violent response. Begbie pushed Renton against the wall by his neck and threatened him with a blade. Through this, he maintains the image he defines himself through; this preoccupation with himself, his narcissism, is his motivation. This does not, however, justify his violence, it simply creates a further context outwith the unmotivated compulsion, which Begbie also displays.
Self-distress is a major force for Begbie and the clearest moment of this in the narrative is the final dramatic crescendo of the film where Begbie attacks a man in a bar for causing him to pour some beer onto his suit. He insults the physical appearance of the man and before Spud could warn the unsuspecting victim not to respond to Begbie’s disrespectful insult, the audience is already anticipating violence. Begbie smashes a pint glass onto the man’s face and proceeds to violently kick the victim before utilising his blade. Unfortunately, while Spud tries to stop Begbie, he is injured by the weapon, angering Begbie further.
Begbie, with blood splattered over his face and a blade in his hand, becomes truly terrifying, not only to the strangers in the bar but also to his friends and the audience. In this scene, he is presented as a violent psychopath with no hope of being anything but that. Begbie’s actions influence Renton to run away with the money from their drug deal and leave his friends and the life he knows. Outside of their homely drug dens and bars, Begbie’s psychopathic nature is out of place and terrifying. As his friends come out of their addictions, Begbie is still trapped in his own. The group may be able to leave their normal surroundings but Begbie cannot if he has any hope of remaining unnoticed. Begbie’s nature has psychopathy ingrained into its fibres but his nurture, his surroundings, allow him to act on his impulses; outside of this society which has nurtured him, which has accommodated his violent behaviour, he is an outsider.
Begbie is a psychopath. He is impulsive, violent, irresponsible, narcissistic, manipulative and is devoid of any remorse for his actions. He uses his surroundings to feed his impulses and does not care who is harmed; women, men and friends are not distinct categories. Begbie’s focus is on himself and preserving his self-image of the ‘hard man’, as a dominating man who should be respected. Any threat to this self-image is easily diminished through violence and intimidation. Any remaining likeability of Begbie is destroyed in the final bar scene and the audience, and his friends, can see the full picture; he is a self-obsessed violent man and any redeeming qualities he may have are unimportant when considering the level of brutality he is capable of.
TRAINSPOTTING is not a film about heroin addicts. TRAINSPOTTING is a film about poverty, choices and identity. The film does not critique its characters, instead, it critiques the society they inhabit. The focus may be on Renton but Begbie provides much of the material for the film’s critique through his actions and characterisation. A society which allows Begbie to exist is one which must be more brutal and manic than he is. Begbie can blend in with his surroundings despite his obvious psychopathy; he does not hide who he is or what he is capable of. If he wants to start a large brawl in a bar, he can. If he wants to attack people, he can. If he wants to rob a jewellery shop, he can. Begbie can violently exist in this society without any major consequences or judgment. ‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family.’ But why would Begbie want to do a thing like that?
Additional reference: Petrie, D. “TRAINSPOTTING, the Film.” Edinburgh Companions to Scottish Literature: The Edinburgh Companion to Irvine Welsh. Ed. Berthold Schoene. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.