Anyone who has an opinion about the current trend in “heroin chic” among fashion photographers and couturiers, or who feels comfortable applying the term “controversial” to a film in which drug-addict characters do not obligingly lay down and die for their sins, probably won’t be reasonable about the excellent, eccentric Trainspotting. The morality of drug-taking is of no use to the addicts here, and the relative glamour of this substance vs. that is a less than worthless distinction.
This movie does not fade out on the sight of its leads littering the floor of a cheap bedsit with their rail-thin young bodies and gasping out their last, martyrs of the Drug Wars, like the cannon fodder of Henry V. This hallucinatory Scottish film acknowledges the unforgivable (in America) certainty that people take drugs to have a good time, and in spite of the bummers of addiction, they very often do. Questions of virtue and fashionability are moot, not to mention absurd.
In adapting Irvine Welsh’s problematic dialect novel, screenwriter John Hodge had a tough row to hoe. The book is a series of loosely connected junkie shaggy-dog stories that the author is too meddlesome to resist fitting with punch lines. Fiction is a convenient medium in which to indulge one’s vanities or insist on truisms, and Welsh is all over Trainspotting, often blotting out the deeply rhythmic voices of his own characters, deflating the rambling, inevitable accumulation of wild detail and how-did-I-get-here moments with his own self-dramatizing morality or, worse, smirking anti-morality.
That voice is blessedly absent from the film, which reunites Hodge, producer Andrew MacDonald, and director Danny Boyle, the trio who made last year’s cruel and stylish Shallow Grave. The script focuses on Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) who, with his remarkably complex tangle of impulses, opinions, and doubts, is the nearest thing to an Everyman the Edinburgh shadow world offers. His narration, like that in Alfie, ties the sequences together, explaining who and how his friends are and why they do what they do by way of justifying to us—but really to himself—his seemingly dismal existence. But the one thing we cannot understand and he cannot sufficiently explain—the feeling of heroin—is the one thing that makes it all worthwhile.
The specter of 1966’s Alfie indeed hangs over this film, as does Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and any number of other Swinging London products. Boyle wisely doesn’t slow his movie down to indicate the time-quickening effects of the drug; he shows the boys (it’s almost all boys) running, jumping, and bounding about the Edinburgh streets with an audacity that could be mistaken for youthful exuberance if the law weren’t running just behind them. The naively rebellious glee of English movies from the ’60s is captured in these sequences and in the characters’ offhand approaches to morality. If Renton is rotten by default (he’s too exhausted or uninterested to be decent), his pal Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is rotten by design, playing the pouty seducer and aping the shuave, shibilant shtylings of his hero, Sean Connery.
Rounding out the group is Spud (Ewen Bremner), a walking cartoon in groovy professor specs and pegged trousers for whom merely crinkling up his nose questioningly (Spud is a little slow) involves seemingly hundreds of facial muscles, and terrifying bully Frank Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who prises flattery and loyalty out of petrified “friends” too well acquainted with his penchant for abrupt, motiveless violence to quit him. Slightly on the sidelines stands handsome Tommy (Kevin McKidd), with curly golden hair, a real girlfriend, and a healthy hobby—body-building. Astute readers are allowed one guess as to Tommy’s fate.
In various combinations, the boys shoot up, cut up, pass out, and go out, drink beer, indulge in petty crime, and make bewildered attempts to meet women. Marveling at Sick Boy’s effortless seduction technique, Renton targets Diane, a chic, clubgoing dream girl, who pre-empts his efforts by cheerily spitting out a classic pickup monologue at him, a funny scene made even more ridiculous by the fact that the clueless Renton couldn’t possibly invent a lure as smooth as the one Diane has heard a hundred times. She invites him home anyway, and the punch line of their tryst is too delicious to spoil.
For all its grotty humanity, Trainspotting is beautiful to look at. It’s art-directed within an inch of its life and, as in Shallow Grave, the interiors are richly painted and touched with interesting spatial moments—queer little windows and handsome partitions. Boyle keeps the camera low to the ground, so when the lads leap, they seem to fly, and when their heads hit the floor (people fall over a lot in this movie), it’s less an accident than a comic inevitability. Boyle directs with great wit; he can wring laughs out of careful design, whether squeezing a heavily speeding, tight-suited Spud into a corner for a doomed job interview or placing a monochromatic circular bar in the dead center of a space to make a gaudy American tourist look as unlikely as an elephant storming down Edinburgh’s Princes Street.
The film also lapses into surrealistic fugue states that either intensify or shrug off the general air of squalor. Already semifamous among squeamish critics is a scene in which Renton dives into an unbelievably filthy toilet to retrieve two precious opium suppositories and ends up gliding through a pristine blue sea; afterward he finds neither the swish through the muck nor the idyllic swim worthy of comment. Later, an overdose sequence shows Renton tidily swallowed by a grave-shaped depression in the floor, and to the accompaniment of Lou Reed’s mournful “Perfect Day,” he’s bundled into a taxi and left in a heap in a hospital doorway. Compared to the outrageous beauty and emotion of these sequences, the tour-de-force withdrawal scene, with its food-horror and images of a recently dead baby and soon-to-be-dead friend, seems almost mundane.
In between the twin obsessions of heroin and bodily functions, the heroes’ lives go on: Sick Boy kicks dope to annoy his pals, Tommy spends his dole check on tickets to Iggy Pop instead of his girlfriend’s birthday gift, Renton makes off with Tommy’s homemade sex videotape, and Begbie tosses an empty pint glass over his shoulder from a pub balcony, then tears downstairs to have some fun with the resulting bloody chaos. And finally, after going mainstream and moving out of temptation’s reach, Renton finds his new life (and new flat) invaded, one by one, by his bedraggled old pals, who don’t know where else to go. Whereupon, of course, they all end up back in the game, having imported the Edinburgh low life to middle-class London.
Trainspotting, the book, was set somewhere in the 1980s, but the film brings the story up to date with no loss of resonance—indeed a huge gain. Framed by the ’90s, the characters’ references are a little out of time, from when their tastes first solidified and their awareness of the world became vivid. Like any addictive substance, heroin has frozen these boys not only emotionally and psychologically but culturally. The touchpoints they cling to—Connery’s James Bond, for heaven’s sake—explain their teenage taste for emotional hyperbole and radical excess, for not being cynical about the value of rebellion. So while the excellent soundtrack obligingly plays their musical first loves—Iggy Pop, New Order, Lou Reed—it also mocks their dissociation from current youth culture with the complex house sounds of the nightclubs they tentatively edge into, old men in a warehouse of people their own age.
It is in fact the likes of young, comfortable-in-her-own-skin Diane who owns the future, with her contempt for cheesy male chauvinism and her saucy take on history. (A convincing Andy Warhol–style silkscreen quadruple portrait—of herself—adorns Diane’s bedroom.) She urges Renton to forget about “Eggy” Pop, and when corrected, sighs, “Whatever. He’s dead.” It doesn’t matter to her whether he’s dead or not; her point is that the past Renton clutches at as a substitute for the future he rejects is its equal in futility, a distinction he’s unable to make.
This is the only way to make sense of the opening monologue, quoted everywhere of late (“Choose life,” it begins, ironically, before billowing into a rant against middle-class creature comforts and anonymous death) as if it makes a watertight case for the brand of subversion that is drug use. But generations have been rejecting the same potential future in America since the Beatniks—how many young Republicans of the ’80s were rejecting their own ’60s-bred parents’ rejection of the Establishment?—and this cannot be news to any movie so heavily invested in the look and ethos of Carnaby Street. Such coarse missteps by the author are treated here either with irony in their turn, or ignored, like the grotesquely sentimental payoff of the title late in the novel. (Trainspotting, by the bye, is a soul-numbing English hobby involving “collecting” train numbers as they come into the station; in the book, it is a rather swell metaphor for anything, like heroin use, utterly riveting and utterly pointless.)
But what shines through the scrim of Renton’s youthful self-drama is actually fear that feeling anything more than nothing at all will be too much for him. And it isn’t just heroin that cuts the characters off from connecting; when Renton finally cleans up (after countless false starts), moves to Squaresville, and takes a normal-formal job selling real estate, he’s no better. His coldness and empty, solitary way of life are merely creepy without the excuse of the masking drug. When he relapses, it’s a relief—now he has something to live for again.
The film’s best joke is the way it handles Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, and Begbie pulling off the Big Job, already touted up front in ads—“The last dodgy scam in a lifetime of dodgy scams”; the accent-queasy TV ads substitute “risky”—as if this were The Wild Bunch on dope. But the film subverts the time-honored climax of the heroes’ one final crime that will put them on Easy Street. It sets up a string of turnarounds and betrayals in which the expected bad things don’t happen while a couple of unexpected ones, thanks to Begbie’s time-bomb presence, do.
In the end, Renton’s pledge to go clean is made in the spirit of all his previous such pledges—disconnected, unreal, unemphatic. “I’m going to choose life,” he claims, grinning icily. But it means as little as Sick Boy’s snotty, moralizing “Just say no” to Renton and Spud at their trial for petty theft earlier in the film; if he can impress the judge and piss off his friends at the same time, life is good. As for Renton’s promise, it’s morally meaningless as well. Trainspotting demonstrates that he has a life already—not clean or legal or kind, but in its disgraceful way, as rich as any other.CP