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Trainspotting (1996)


I think I had two friends with this poster back in the 90s...
I think I had two friends with this poster back in the 90s...

Genre: Drama (UK)

Starring: Ewan McGregor (The Pillow Book • Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith), Ewen Bremner (The Acid House • Julien Donkey-Boy), Robert Carlyle (28 Weeks LaterThe Full Monty)

Directed By: Danny Boyle (28 Days Later…Slumdog Millionaire)

Overview: Renton is a heroine junkie, ever trying to get clean. These are his vignettes, and those of his friends.

I’ve read a handful of Irvine Welsh’s books, the author of Trainspotting. He has a wonderful way of conveying, through his writing, the effect of drugs to those who’ve never experienced them. Trainspotting – the novel – is no different. Translating those and Welsh’s other vignette-style stories to film is something Danny Boyle manages to pull off rather well, thank you very much.

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?  


That opening monologue runs in narration as Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Spud (Ewen Bremner) run through the streets of Edinburgh being chased by police. The words above teach us all the things that Fight Club also taught us about living the normal life, but Trainspotting is just a little more nihilistic about it. From here, we follow the lives of a couple of heroin addicts: the sometimes-hopeful-for-a-clean-life Renton, the dimwitted Spud and the amoral Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller). They also have a few friends who don’t use, like the utterly psychotic-rage-filled Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who’s above shooting smack: No way would I poison my body with that shite, all they fucking chemicals, no fucking way. This he says while smoking and drinking a pint. Then there’s the genuinely-straight-edge Tommy (Kevin McKidd). We follow their lives in vignettes, including their daily habits and their capital-H Habit.

Renton is the kind-hearted closest-to-an-everyman-character. He narrates, helping to teach us how incredibly incredible heroin is, and how utterly miserable life is without it. His stories include getting clean… a couple of times. Spud, well he’s more of a follower. He tags along, talking shite and getting into trouble. The proud Sick Boy loves talking Connery while lining up targets with his bb gun. Then there’s Begbie. He’s absolutely psychotic. His friends are too scared of him to stop being his friend. He carries a knife, isn’t afraid to use it and fighting in pubs is probably his favourite hobby. But you may have guessed already that Trainspotting isn’t about Renton and Spud and Begbie; it’s about heroin and how the lives of all these not-quite-boys, not-quite-men are inextricably linked to the double-edged sword that is this malignant addiction – event for those who don’t use.

I don’t think I could ever call Trainspotting’s cinematography ‘beautiful’ but it’s highly stylized. There’s several scenes that proudly stand out for me, enhancing the visual metaphor: the worst toilet in Scotland, where Renton has to go fishing for suppositories; a scene where Renton is kicking smack, with the walls moving as he hallucinates; even the place where he and his pals get their fix is wonderfully detailed misery. As for the acting, well, its Ewan McGregor in the lead and and wonderfully outrageously played characters supporting him. You have nothing to worry about there – with Begbie being the insane angry cherry on top.

And the classic baby on the ceiling scene.
And the classic baby on the ceiling scene.

As for the story and its themes, let me get into it a little bit. Here’s a quote from the 1001 tome: “[Director] Boyle and [screenwriter] Hodge’s refusal to take a moral stance is in fact one of the movies’ many attributes.” The first time I saw Trainspotting back in ’96, I could not disagree more with that statement. Here’s this movie that talks about the horrors of heroin and how terrible and painful a life it is, but it’s riddled with glorious – and glorifying – anthems by the likes of Iggy Pop. The music is kind of incredible. Add the obvious highs that these addicts go through when they get their fix and there’s a lot of Trainspotting that makes you start realizing why so many people think it’s worth it.

Today, after having seen films like Scarface and Spring Breakers, I realize that accurately reflecting life’s ups and downs isn’t glorifying, it’s recounting, and today I agree with that 1001 quote. The only thing I could say that Boyle does to soften the blow is that the misery is often funny – but when it’s truly horrific, Boyle doesn’t hold back.

Hilarious, wacky, and so full of feces – so often! – that you might just forget that it's about drugs… just maybe.

 Fan art attack!
Fan art attack!

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 8 Plot: 7 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 80% (Pull Up A Chair)

I’m still on my Welsh kick. I watched Filth this week, I plan on a third viewing of the Acid House, and even his miserably reviewed Ecstasy (2011) are on the menu for this month. Having read them all, it’s fun to see how they translate to film.


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