In the very first shot of Trainspotting, a good-looking Scot with close-cropped hair and his gawkier sidekick are running like hell through the streets of Edinburgh, a pair of security guards in close pursuit and Iggy Pop’s percussive “Lust For Life” pumping on the soundtrack. The imagery and sound are absolutely perfect, characterizing the film’s headlong, nihilistic style in its very first moments of action. In voiceover, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is taking a sidelong gander at his options for clean living. “Choose life,” he drawls almost playfully in a thick Scottish brogue. “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.”
He’s mocking the bourgeois lifestyle, of course, concluding, “Choose life …. Why would I want to do a thing like that?” Casting aspersions on notions of a normal life, Trainspotting is a deliciously entertaining and only vaguely depressing show that presses thumb to nose throughout its 93 minutes. The film is eager to shock and sicken, but it takes such a keen interest in character — and its performances are so surefooted — that even as it dives headlong into the murky toilet water of the Scottish drug culture, Trainspotting emerges triumphant, a cockeyed grin plastered across its face.
In Irvine Welsh’s celebrated novel, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge find the humanity that eluded their previous effort, Shallow Grave. It was hard to really care about the characters in that film, a trio of greedheaded flatmates who destroy themselves for the love of money. It may have seemed an even more formidable task to penetrate the unlovable patina of heroin-addled youth, but Hodge’s smart, compact screenplay, coupled with winning performances by McGregor, Ewan Bremner (Spud, Renton’s cohort in the opening scene), Jonny Lee Miller (the weirdly charming Sick Boy), and Robert Carlyle (Begbie, who’s sort of Scotland’s answer to a Joe Pesci character), makes for a downright charming picture.
Renton is the smartest of these unapologetic junkies, and the film’s subjective center. We watch through his eyes as he and his mates tie off and shoot up, and we process thoughts along with him as he ruminates on the meanings of life and death, the severity of his cravings, and the place of his fellow Scotsmen in the world. “I hate being Scottish,” he rants in a rare moment of social consciousness. “I don’t hate the English—they’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers.” McGregor’s delivery is easily hilarious, but the true feelings that it suggests boil well under the surface of this film, as does much situational unpleasantness.
Trainspotting‘s stylish gloss is hardly realistic, and its portrayal of addiction is nearly as glamorous as the film’s detractors may have you believe—but it’s not a glamour without consequences. We see the deaths that are brought on by all this nihilistic cavorting, and the film’s centerpiece is a nightmarish, surreal drama of overdosing and kicking the habit, set to the longing strains of Lou Reed’s glam-era “Perfect Day” and some truly disturbing imagery that could have been nicked from Jan Svankmajer. (The overdose itself actually reminds me of the funeral procession from Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr.)
What really gives Trainspotting credibility is its close relationship with the body. Needle tracks, accidental and deliberate bloodshed, casual sex with schoolgirls, and explosive diarrhea are all part of the tableau. Understanding that you can’t make a movie about the pleasures and pains of drug addiction without seeking intimacy with the body that feels the rush, Boyle’s camera gets close to McGregor’s starmaking performance, going so far as to set one flatulent scene in “the worst toilet in Scotland.”
You may well be wondering how I can use words like hilarious and charming to describe such a picture. The simple answer is that Trainspotting is brilliant and audacious filmmaking. Trainspotting helps you understand the lure of the heroin culture by introducing a gang of addicts who are affable and charming and addicted to a rush that’s described as superior to a thousand grade-A orgasms. These kids seem to be victims of circumstance and class struggle as much as anything (again, such concerns are left to flow well below surface level), and there’s a simple vicarious thrill to be had by the audience in sharing their outlaw lifestyle. I wouldn’t want to be Mark Renton, but I surely wish him well.
Even so, there are audiences who will find this all to be a little much, and who might characterize the humor or its attending sentiments as “sick.” They would do well to stay away. Others may well be put off by the lack of any strong female characters — the most prominent is Diane (Kelly MacDonald), playing jailbait, and she’s in the film for about five minutes. (Somebody obviously identified the “boys club” angle as a marketing waterloo, since ads feature MacDonald prominently even though she’s a decidely minor character whose best scenes were cut before release.) Again, it’s good to know what you’re getting into before you buy your ticket. Trainspotting is a vein-tapping, shite-slinging, loo-diving virtuoso piece — and it’s best recommended to folks who aren’t timid about that sort of thing. They’ll be rewarded.