Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlisle
So, it only took 14 years, but I finally saw Trainspotting. To put this in the proper perspective please note that I saw Swimfan in the theatre. It's amazing the things we make time for. As usual when I find myself playing catch-up with films like this, I really didn't know what I was missing. This dark and sometimes nasty (I still haven't fully recovered from the toilet scene) movie is an absolute masterpiece.
Trainspotting explodes out of the gate with a chase down the streets of Edinburgh as Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” plays in the background. The song captures the hedonistic, devil may care spirit of the characters, though the title is a bit misleading, as none of them really have a lust for life but rather a longing for oblivion. The story is seen through the eyes of Renton (Ewan McGregor), a heroin addict who will try at various points throughout the story to get clean. His success is impeded by the fact that most of his friends are also heroin addicts and that part of the pleasure of the addiction comes from the camaraderie that blooms out of getting high. His friends are Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), who is obsessed with Sean Connery, Spud (Ewen Bremner), psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlisle), and Tommy (Kevin McKidd), who starts out the film clean but slowly descends into addiction and death.
With the intervention of his parents, Renton does eventually manage to get clean, escape Edinburgh, and get work as a realtor. He’s well on his way to becoming a regular, upstanding citizen but then his past catches up with him, first in the form of Begbie and then in the form of Sick Boy. At first his two guests simply annoy him (particularly when he finds out that Sick Boy has taken it upon himself to sell his TV), but things get serious when they get him involved in a drug scheme that sees him falling off the wagon. In the film’s final moments Renton informs us that he’s going to get clean again, but we have our doubts. We have, after all, heard this before.
Directed by Danny Boyle, the film is visually quite stunning. Some scenes play out as drug induced fantasies and nightmares while others take on a grim reality that, taken together, captures the highs and lows of addiction. The most wrenching scene involves the fate of the baby who is always crawling around the drug den where Renton and his pals congregate. Her sad, sickening demise is not particularly surprising and neither, really, is Renton’s reaction: “I’m cooking up.” Heroin is the balm that enables him to deal with life, though it is also of course robbing him of his life by usurping everything else in it. At his worst, all he cares about it heroin and everything else falls away in his desire to use it, to get it, and to get more of it.
When the film was first released it was accused of glamorizing addiction, leading me to wonder if those accusers saw the same movie I did (Bob Dole, one of the more vociferous opponents of the film later admitted that he’d never actually seen it). What about the filthy, decaying rooms in which the characters spend their time, the scabs and scars that mark their bodies, is supposedly romanticized? I think Trainspotting is actually a great anti-drug movie because it shows the balance of pleasure to pain inherent in addiction. Some of the visuals look cool, but not cool in a “wow, I’m going to go try heroin” kind of way, but rather in an “I’m glad I didn’t have to try heroin to be able to see that” kind of way.
The film made a star of McGregor and it’s easy to see why. Even when Renton is at the very depths of suffering and anguish, the performance itself is charismatic. He inhabits Renton easily, blurring the line between actor and character, and he captures both the “fuck it” attitude and the guilt that follows the consequences of that attitude. He feels badly about what happens to Tommy, perhaps not because he really thinks it’s his fault but rather because he’s glad it happened to Tommy and not himself, and he feels badly when bad things happen to Spud, but at the same time he lives from moment to moment. The way that he lives, every second could be his last so he’d better move on, leave the guilt behind, and make the most of whatever comes next. As anti-heroes go, he's fairly compelling and a large part of that comes from McGregor's ability to weave humor into pathos; Renton is a sad character, but he's also very watchable and engaging. Kudos to McGregor and, of course, to Boyle for bringing Renton and his world so vibrantly and brutally to life.