The movie Bronson loosely follows the true story of the infamous "most violent prisoner" in the UK -- a man named Michael Peterson who later changed his name to Charles "Charlie" Bronson on the advice of his bare knuckle boxing promoter. The movie, released in Britain in 2009, is likely to be of interest to those who work in forensic or correctional settings, as well as those with an interest in antisocial behavior and juvenile delinquency.
From a personal and professional standpoint, I was most struck by the theme of inadequate limit setting in childhood, resulting in an aggression-prone, self-destructive individual. It is a compelling demonstration of how unrestrained instinctual impulses inexorably declare war on reality itself.
We are told right off the bat by Bronson that his greatest desire is to "be famous," yet he believes he has limited avenues for achieving the type of fame he craves. Having far too much "ambition" to let this stop him, he instead ends up becoming infamous. We are introduced to a mother who is quite overwhelming, yet who never disciplines him, and a father who is passive to the point of veritable non-existence.
Over the course of Bronson's life, we see these dynamics take on the following progression:
The authorities bring him home for stealing/fighting in school and request a "word" with his mother. She slams the door in their faces as she coddles Bronson in their middle class home. As an adult, Bronson steals a relatively meager amount of money from a register at his work place, and gives some to his girl friend. This time, the police show up with a warrant at his parent's home. Bronson violently attacks the police as soon as they enter his room. In court, he gets 7 years for his crimes. As soon as the sentence is read, his mother exclaims: "Don't worry son...you'll be out in four!" The irony is that Bronson himself turns this 7 years into well over 30.
We see clearly that Bronson's mother never set limits with him, nor introduces him to the demands of reality. Unfortunately, both parents fail to serve as ambassadors to reality. Bronson's father appears too inadequate to even communicate to his son. Thus, Bronson is never taught how to properly direct his substantial "ambition." We see that this has the effect of distorting his ambition into a sexualized aggression without limits. He sees only that his aggression brings him attention/infamy, and any chance he gets to demonstrate this is highly gratifying to him. This reaches a zenith when Bronson proclaims that prison is "a blast" and the ideal place for him to "sharpen" his "tools."
The movie slips into nicely done, periodic narrative interludes in which Bronson is on stage before a large audience telling his life story. Before this audience, he becomes a dynamic, one man show, and seems to be most alive in this fantasy forum. But in the real setting of the prison, Bronson makes it clear that this too is simply another stage. He sees himself as "famous" in prison, yet in reality achieves only infamy. True… everyone knows him, yet they mostly fear him and his ever present readiness to unleash his violent impulses. He could erupt into violence at any given moment, causing his presence to carry a constant, animalistic threat of danger.
After too many repeated violent attacks on correctional officers, Bronson admits to himself he has made a mistake -- for he is next sent to the psychiatric hospital. As this part of the movie takes place in roughly the 70's, this segment drags out all the old stigmas-- overmedication, drooling, zombification of patients, etc. The burly psychiatric attendants inform Bronson that he is no longer in prison, and they are "lion tamers." We see Bronson's violent impulses paralyzed with involuntary medication. But a closer inspection reveals the glowing embers of undaunted "ambition" present in his eyes. He finally reasons that he must take drastic action to force the hospital into wanting to dispense with him.
Of course, he relies on the ability that had taken him this far-- his predatory aggression. He attacks and nearly kills a pedophile who had displeased him during his stay. Bronson then eagerly awaits what he believes is his inevitable reward-- his trial and return to prison. He is shocked and irate to discover that this new "system" is not going to hold him accountable (a narrative interlude has him act this out made up as half Bronson, half female nurse/administator). It is only after Bronson stages a war-like, facility wide riot, that psychiatry arrives at a curious administrative "solution": Bronson is officially declared "sane." Thus, he is fit to be discharged, and released into the community.
His loving parents take him back unquestioningly, and offer him a room in their new home. When even his mother fails to gratify him unconditionally-- an inevitability (upon release from prison, she had not kept every single one of his belongings, most critically his bed), even he cannot tolerate her any longer. He leaves to join his distinctly effeminate, antisocial uncle Jack, who gratifies all his desires. Bronson manages to spend a generous "69" days in free society, earning money in a variety of illegal, violent endeavors.
Bronson (a fantasy, "stage" name) tries to extricate himself from the frustrating, disappointing fantasy in which his mother has trapped him. After all, he must at some level realize that it is a lie, that reality demands consequences, and that being "famous" takes more than a mere willingness to throw punches at the drop of a hat. He realizes as an adult that he wants to make something of himself, but has not been taught how to sublimate, or otherwise delay gratification and cope with the uncertainties and disappointments inherent in reality. But then this leaves us with the very difficult question of agency. At what point must he relinquish blaming his parents, and begin to consider himself for maintaining the destructive fantasy in the face of so many lessons not learned?
Bronson’s uncle Jack strongly encourages his nihilistic, fantasy "ambition" in a hedonistic environment. Bronson begins to make money as an underground, bare knuckle brawler. When there are no longer any men for Bronson to beat to a pulp, he next takes up fighting packs of angry dogs for the amusement of others. During this period, Bronson becomes interested in one of the many women around his uncle Jack's house. Bronson wishes to marry her, but seems to know already that she will reject him. He steals a ring for her, appearing to realize he would be caught in quick order. His love interest informs him that she already has fiancee, and never had any intentions of a serious relationship with him. The police arrive to arrest Bronson before he can even put the ring away.The timing could not be more convenient, as Bronson is abruptly carted off to prison, precluding him from having to face the emotional aftermath of such an obviously painful rejection.
In Bronson’s final return to prison, we are introduced to a different type of warden. He is shrewd and thoroughly unflappable. He speaks and acts in a quintessential no nonsense British manner, yet is psychologically minded. He does not respond to Bronson in the usual way (force met with reflexive force). He is, in the parlance of corrections: firm but fair, consistent, and unswerving. We are given a sense that Bronson is now out of his league in terms of the chess games he has heretofore been playing with other prison wardens.
For example, when Bronson unexpectedly takes an officer hostage, the usual swarm of officers does not appear at his door. Rather, a phone is calmly handed to him via his door slot. The warden is on the other end...
Bronson: I'm going to snap his neck unless I get what I want!
Warden: What do you want Charles?
Bronson: (a bit puzzled) Well.... what have you got?
Warden: What do you want us to do with you?
Bronson: Fuck off!
Warden: I can promise you this. If you continue to act in this nihilistic and godless fashion, you will die inside.
Rather than the typical reactionary anger Bronson has received in the past, the new warden takes a different tack. When Bronson tries his usual methods of shock and intimidation, the warden calmly and sincerely tells him he is "pitiful," and gives Bronson no further attention. Perhaps the new warden's approach slows Bronson down enough to rethink his methods. It is during this time that Bronson appears to become very invested in art therapy. This seems to represent a potential healthy avenue for sublimation, were it not for the art therapist (another distinctly effeminate character) relying on splitting to ingratiate himself to Bronson.
Here we again see the the theme of absent limit setting and unhelpful role modeling. The art therapist speaks poorly of the warden after the warden indicates that he will look at Bronson's art at a later time instead of immediately. The therapist tells Bronson that the warden will recognize his artistic genius, and Bronson will "finally get" what he's always wanted. Not surprisingly, this provokes a severe aggressive outburst from Bronson who snarls, "What do you know about what I fuckin' want?"
Bronson proceeds to take the art therapist hostage, tying him up, and turning him into a piece of living artwork that suspiciously resembles Bronson himself. When Bronson has finished his "masterpiece," he tells the officers he is done, signaling to them he is now ready for his traditional, violent take down melee. At the end of the movie, we are told that Bronson had spent 30 of his 34 years in prison in solitary confinement.
The furthest Bronson appears to get along developmental lines is the paranoid-schizoid stage 1, as he cannot negotiate beyond the absolutism of rejection of societal mores and toward reality. Eventually, he is caught in the "nihilistic" downward spiral that lies between the paranoid-schizoid stage and regression to fantasy (psychosis)-- the only place he can go.2 The movie ends with him in the small smallest cage possible...a hairless (but grown) fetus, covered in blood and bodily fluids. He cannot talk, but only wheezes as he labors to breathe in and out.
Bronson had me wondering whether it might become a cult classic in the same fashion that A Clockwork Orange did. In Bronson, however, we are exposed much more to the inner psychological turmoil of the highly antisocial individual (as opposed to the free will issues raised in Clockwork). Bronson deliberately sets out to present us not with mindless violence, but with a psychological study of the extreme destructiveness of failing to convey real world limitations to children during development. The result is an all out war declared upon reality, which can only climax in nihilistic self-destruction.3 This can be seen routinely in inmates in today's solitary or punitive segregation units, who have reached a stage of such aggressive nihilism that they display little motivation to self-regulate their behavior.4
To become "infamous," all one needs to do is disregard limits, rules, organization, and other infrastructures of civilization. One cannot simply demand or forcibly bestow fame upon oneself. Achieving true fame comes from dedication, hard work and delay of gratification. One might also argue that the truest fame comes from an accomplishment directed towards others, as opposed to chasing fame for one's own ego gratification. In either case, fame cannot be wrested from its perch, otherwise it is transformed into infamy.
Bronson's "ambition" (unrestrained instinctual impulses) flows from a narcissistic premise that does not acknowledge limitation. Nor does it lend itself to any reasonable resolution of conflicts. Indeed, even the notion of reasonableness must be attacked, as it represents reality itself which Bronson must destroy.5 In the traditional Oedipal arrangement, the father is seen as depriving us of the connection to the mother and all the unrestrained gratification she represents. Yet for Bronson, the father was in absentia, and unavailable to work with the mother to impart realistic limit setting.
Since Bronson developed a grandiose, primitive self that did not recognize the existence of independent others, the reality of the prison system itself was left to function as de facto parent. Leaving aside the obvious notion that our penal system is poorly situated to play such a role, consider how Bronson must continually rage against this institution which can never give him what he so ambitiously desires - the all encompassing attention and adulation of a mother for it's child. He has taken a backwards route, trying to re-attain the status of what Freud called "His Majesty the baby."
Since this fantasy route is closed off by the dictates of reality, Bronson is forced into the only route available - the nihilistic, destructive black hole of thanatos. In this dark cavern, one's degrees of freedom become progressively smaller. There are no other options open to him, save a declaration of war against the whole of reality, which is ultimately self-destroying.
As an afterward, I should mention that I restrained my remarks herein to the movie character Bronson. However, it is not entirely clear to me whether age has slowed the real life Bronson down (he is currently 58). Recent UK newspaper reports proclaim that as late as 11/12/10, Bronson "covered himself in butter while naked and took on 12 prison warders in his latest jail rage."6 (Covering himself in butter or other slippery substances makes him harder for "warders" to control, leaving him more time to inflict damage on them). There is also a "Free Bronson" website that proclaims all this to be nonsense.7 In either case, I cannot purge myself of the image of a slippery, meconium-covered newborn - slick, difficult to hold onto... and painfully upset about having to enter reality.
The author would like to thank Salomon Grimberg, MD, for his extremely helpful insights.
1. Klein M: Envy and Gratitude, and other works, 1946-1963. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1975. See also: Hyatt-Williams, A. (1998) Cruelty, Violence and Murder: Understanding the Criminal Mind. New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.
2. Knoll J: Treating the Morally Objectionable. In: Handbook of Violence Risk Assessment and Treatment: New Approaches for Mental Health Professionals (J. Andrade, Ed.). New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2009; Chapter 10, pp. 311-345.
3. Schwartz H: Political correctness and organizational nihilism. Human Relations, Vol. 55, No. 11, 1275-1294 (2002) http://www.sba.oakland.edu/faculty/schwartz/Political%20correctness%20an... Accessed January 3, 2011.
4. Knoll J, Bevens G: Supermax Units & Death Row. In: Handbook of Correctional Mental Health – 2nd Edition (C. Scott, Ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc., 2010; Chapter 16; pp. 435 – 475.
5. Schwartz H: Organization in the Age of Hysteria. Journal of European Psychoanalysis 2005, 20 (1): pp. 41-71.
6. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-world/2010/11/15/naked-charles-bronso... Accessed January 3, 2011.