Bright Lights Film Journal

Watch It Again! Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)

Trainspotting has been criticized as “pro-drug” for its flighty and pictorial depictions of heroin use, but I don’t think that’s even an issue. The grimy mundanity of the world surrounding Renton’s succession of trips to his blissful oblivion balances Boyle’s film out to a place where it has no argument. It is not pro or anti; it’s more portraiture than PSA.

* * *

Danny Boyle is a director less concerned with what something is than what it means. So he approaches issues of social importance with no advocacy. Instead, he has a surrealist’s fleshy, distorted honesty, twisting his happy boys into cloying screams and narrating his domestic settings into outrageous caricatures of slanted rooms and self-aware nightmares. And like his gaggle of cockney ramblers he seems to do it not to be irresponsible, not to prove a point, but merely for the pleasure of it. Trainspotting is him at his most indulgent, a film as inventive a look at addiction as a Dali portrait of an addict, and as enjoyable as watching someone else masturbate.

The film begins joined at the bony hip to Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton, whose perspective and narration is our only viewpoint on the film version of Irvine Welsh’s collection of short stories. Like the heroin he fixates on, the film will never let him off its hook. “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” Renton muses, as he begs, steals, clamors for another hit of the intravenous life-giver. Trainspotting has been criticized as “pro-drug” for its flighty and pictorial depictions of heroin use, but I don’t think that’s even an issue. The grimy mundanity of the world surrounding Renton’s succession of trips to his blissful oblivion balances Boyle’s film out to a place where it has no argument. It is not pro or anti; it’s more portraiture than PSA. The film barrels headlong toward a desire for just one more hit like the tragically cyclical Renton (as he says, “No matter how often you go out and rob and fuck people over, you always need to get up and do it all over again”). Trainspotting may not even want to do it. It’s just too hard for it to live any other way, as when Renton and his mates leave Edinburgh and break down partway across a scenic moor because they no longer remember why anyone would walk in a park, in a world that has heroin in it.

Those mates each play a point in orbit around Renton’s center of gravity. Johnny Lee Miller plays fast-talking Sick Boy, who haunts Renton’s highs with sly metaphysics and a Sean Connery accent. Spud (Ewen Brenner) uses because he’s got nothing better to do and nothing bigger to think (he shoots up before a job interview because he’s afraid he’ll get it otherwise). He’ll take the fall and go to prison if he can still hang around his mates when it’s all over. Tommy (Kevin McKidd) is a virgin to their slick pharmaceutical mistress, till he gets sucked too deep into Renton’s gravitation. Rough ’n’ rowdy Begbie (Robert Carlyle) prides himself on being clean, but beats innocent barmates into bloody pulps as a substitute high. Kelly Macdonald plays a young flinger called Diane, whom Renton ravages after discovering the hole that sobriety left in his libido.

They all demonstrate their character with too much subtle accuracy to be real, like none of them exist except as Renton’s simplified versions of themselves. McGregor owns the majority of the film’s words, spoken in self-reflective monologue, rarely blasting at his friends like he has something to prove (save a scene on the moors where he unloads on someone’s pride for Scotland, a country lower than the English wankers for being “COLONIZED by wankers”). In his most tragic scene he calmly takes another hit, to “test” the drug, after a grueling victory for sobriety and a short stint as a real estate agent saving money, dating women, and looking ahead. He’s like the film itself, low, wild-eyed, barely trustable. But Boyle infuses it and him with such raucous camaraderie that he and McGregor make gleeful banter the joy of watching “Trainspotting,” if there is one, like if Requiem for a Dream happened at Cheers.

Admittedly, I probably understood more than theater-goers, as I watched it with the closed captioning that I would consider mandatory. Boyle has made a film whose conversations have far more pretensions of meaning than clarity, positioning world-weary philosophy as verbal slurries of cursing and thickly veiled North European isms. It fits the style, but Trainspotting should come with a read-along. Enough on that.

Renton has an acute eye for culture criticism, often creating situations of great unease even for real-life do-gooders. He refers to his mom’s penchant for Valium, mouthwash, mineral water, vitamins, and pornography as “her own domestic and socially acceptable drug addiction.”  This is a tough notion for people who view heroin or drugs in general as the keystone of a whole degenerate house built on the sand of irresponsible indulgences. As the mates see it, it’s just the single replacement for all those micro-addictions that get anyone through their daily lives. Like anyone most angered by what they perceive to be true but will not admit, those who decried Trainspotting probably still saw the truths in its trials. “Dot, dot, dot,” Renton says after a scathing rant, seemingly aware of silly other narrators in movies with lower stakes and duller highs.

And there’s a whole ecosystem of images emblematic of Boyle sharing Renton’s sense of importance. Diving into a toilet after some pills becomes a serene dip in a sunlit lagoon. A mistreated baby becomes a scathing horror. All around his source’s rambling self-indulgences Boyle supports them with his dreamlike attention to detail, with color as intoxicatingly vibrant in images as Renton’s vocabulary is in scribing that honorless joy of sharing this one forbidden pleasure between mates. You have to punish yourself into liking Trainspotting, a film fit for that bygone auteuristic age when directors, like addicts, sought their own pleasures with greater tenacity than those of the people watching. Boyle’s just about there, but too gleeful in his elegant destruction to pay it, or us, much mind. Heroin help us, now that there’s a sequel.