“Choose rotting away at the end of it all”
There’s an undeniable energy to Danny Boyle‘s Trainspotting, a rush of excitement set to a pulse-pounding rock soundtrack that almost seems the antithesis of what it’s like to fall down into a heroin-fueled dreamy stupor. Even as the characters from Irvine Welsh‘s infamous novel stick themselves with a needle and sink into the floor, Boyle keeps the pedal depressed beyond capacity with inventive visuals and breakneck speed narration. But as you get into the film and move forward with the sometimes addicted, sometimes clean band of screw-ups and their sober yet prone to violence friends, you begin to see the story isn’t about heroin at all. The main thrust is instead life in Edinburgh, an affluent city with as much economic, political, and social problems as the next.
Screenwriter John Hodge mined Welsh’s more or less loosely cobbled together slice of life chapters to build a cohesive three-act plot centered on the most charismatic and perhaps most lethally selfish character of all: Renton (Ewan McGregor). He’s the man we should empathize with because he’s the one with a head on his shoulders, high or not. He consciously understands the volatility of Begbie’s (Robert Carlyle) aggression, a drug of another form; the insecurity that leads Spud (Ewen Bremner) to always be a victim of excess and loyalty; the ego motivating Sick Boy’s (Jonny Lee Miller) schizophrenic nature to reinvent himself as another equally loathsome con man in search of a get rich quick scheme; and the purity inevitably dragging Tommy (Kevin McKidd) down to their junkie level.
But this knowledge doesn’t make Renton better. On the contrary, it makes him worse. It supplies a false sense of superiority based in truth but wielded with narcissistic greed. When he decides to get clean he jokes with frustration that Sick Boy joins him merely to prove he’s not the only one who can. This notion is on the surface a slight towards the latter, but the fact Renton refuses to be happy for his friend says more about his yearning to be the “good” one than not. And all the while he lies to his mates, parents (James Cosmo and Eileen Nicholas), and the court system to escape unscathed. Renton will do whatever he deems pleasurable for a laugh without suffering the consequences his victims ultimately do.
This is a result of his addiction, but also his circumstances. Heroin pushes him to seek that next score, but why did he seek the first? Blame his parents. Blame his so-called friends. Blame whomever you want. In the end the world he lives in—and Renton delivers a stirring monologue about Scotland’s shortcomings—has failed him either legitimately or in a way where he believes it has. Look no further than Tommy to see that things don’t have to be so bad. With one tiny change in environment’s nature or nurture, one found sports, exercise, and sex while the other sunk into a depression so that heroin’s side effects of constipation, an absent sex drive, and constant withdrawal became a suitable con list to its instantaneous high.
The filmmakers pull no punches as they make the audience laugh at this life’s absurdity and cry at its horror. To experience the “worst toilet in Scotland” is to initially try and suppress our own gag reflex as Renton does. But the comical nature of seeing his desperation throw caution and hygiene to the wind wins out. To contrast this is an awakening to screams without any cogent way of figuring out how long they’ve lasted. Seeing the utter despair of their helplessness to the drug is to simultaneously pity their situation and resent their part in getting there. Withdrawal nightmares become both a Dickensian visit by Marley to scare its victim straight and pointed commentary for those watching to do all they can to avoid such pain.
So we’re able to bask in the excitement—and Boyle injects a jolt of electricity throughout—while understanding the cost. He supplies a visual and aural high to open our eyes and ears to his characters’ rollercoaster of wildly unhinged antics so that the tragic lows affect us as much as those onscreen. We become marked by the same death, AIDS, guilt, and regret Renton does because we’ve been there to comprehend the context of each nightmarish result too. We know what caused each effect and who deserved the punishment innocents turned accomplices endured. The entire adventure of theft, drugs, sex, and rock is marked by self-motivated actions. They’re mates enough to not turn on the others, but not enough to stop ensuring their best interests are paramount.
The trajectory follows good times and bad, freedom and those inevitable moments of being dragged back in. We witness those who appear to be drowning come up for air while those treading water succumb to the whirlpool that was always swirling beneath. Assistance comes in odd forms (see Kelly Macdonald‘s much more mature than her age sexpot using body and mind for pleasure and intellectual satisfaction) while avenues towards suffering do too (poor Mikey Forrester, as played by author Welsh, forgetting he’s a two-bit pusher and not a cartel). The gang each puts their foot in the muck because they believe they have no choice. And it remains there potentially forever because maybe they don’t. No matter how good things get, something always pulls us back.
Boyle assembles a top-notch team in front of the camera and behind. No one is more memorable than Carlyle’s Begbie and his ability to be one hundred times more formidable than you assume. No one is more tragic than McKidd’s Tommy. We revel in Miller’s Sick Boy spewing nonsense about Sean Connery and whatever else because he cannot remain quiet, find Bremner’s Spud innocently endearing, and struggle to decide whether McGregor’s Renton is someone that we hope frees himself from the clutches of the idiots he hangs with or someone those idiots desperately need to cut loose. We see a bit of ourselves and friends in each lost soul caught within a scenario that ensures the easy score will always appear more fruitful than hard work.
And besides an animatronic baby crawling across the ceiling, the style and practical effect work is peerless. From a putrid cesspool of a bathroom to the clean crisp water of the ocean with glowing suppositories or the tiny ten by ten childhood room of Renton elongating with sweaty fever dreams of unspeakable physical and psychological suffering, Boyle masterfully brings the abstract, internal machinations of addiction to the screen. Welsh and Hodge deliver a story that provides us villains—some who can earn redemption and most who cannot. We believe Renton can be our hero, the narrator speaking in hindsight after leaving the carnage behind. Like with life in general, however, heroes are hard to come by. At the end of the day indulgence drugs us all.