Trainspotting is a riveting piece of cinema. It's the best film to come out of Scotland in years, and it may prove to be one of the seminal films of the '90s. And it's unsatisfying.
It follows the misadventures of a group of smack-addicted, lower-middle-class young Scottish men, and a woman or two. They shoot up, have dazed conversations, shoot up, try to kick, shoot up, commit petty crimes, shoot up, try to kick, have sex, shoot up, commit more serious crimes, shoot up, suffer a couple of hideous catastrophes, shoot up.
The director is Danny Boyle, the screenwriter (adapting an admired novel by Irvine Welsh) is John Hodge, the producer is Andrew Macdonald and the star is Ewan McGregor--the same team that must be held accountable for the grisly noir thriller Shallow Grave last year. That was a startling, engaging bit of nastiness in itself, but it didn't prepare me for the force, the comic bitterness, the tragic jolt of Trainspotting. The earlier film was, well, shallow--a bit of murder, sexual tension, dismemberment and greed among friends simply isn't as grueling as watching beautiful young Scots slowly and airily ruin themselves.
Trainspotting is one of those rare black comedies that doesn't arouse suspicion at the whole genre of black comedy, so often used by the unimaginative for its easy irony and the cheap illusion it can give of profound outrageousness. Like patriotism in the political sphere, black comedy is often the last refuge of the aesthetic scoundrel. In Trainspotting, Boyle and Hodge are able to be truly funny yet truly harrowing. The humor pulls us into the horror and pain rather than distancing us from it.
Early in the film, Mark Renton (McGregor) steals a homemade video from his friend Tommy (Kevin McKidd) showing Tommy having sex with his girlfriend (Pauline Lynch). It's mischievously funny, yet as the film progresses we see the disastrous consequences of this idle prank. There's the repeated image of a plump, smiling baby crawling around a roomful of nodded-out, semiconscious junkies; the image is grimly funny, almost surreal. Yet Boyle and crew aren't about to let it be merely funny, merely surreal. Trainspotting frequently makes us laugh, but it doesn't let us off the hook.
A gritty, low-down kind of surrealism seems to flow naturally out of Boyle's style. After Renton has an attack of diarrhea which sends him into the Worst Toilet in Scotland--a location noted, unnecessarily, by helpful subtitles--he dives straight into the bowl and swims through murky depths to retrieve a pair of opium suppositories he's lost.
Later, after taking an especially potent hit, Renton sinks into the red-shag carpet of the dealer's pad, and Boyle shows us his point of view, looking up from his figurative red-shag ditch. The dealer (Peter Mullan) drags Renton down the stairs and into the street for an ambulance, and we see his point of view again--the gray Scottish sky, but still bordered by shag-carpet margins. Boyle brings off these little flourishes with so light and unfussy a touch that they never come off phony or precious.
Never, that is, except when Boyle and Hodge try to give their junkies status as social outcasts. Trainspotting's only touch of the smarmy is when it shows us nonjunkies, like Renton's explosive friend Begbie (Robert Carlyle, superb though unintelligibly brogued), smoking and drinking while he haughtily proclaims, "No way would I poison my body with all that shite."
In fairness, Boyle probably means this as a mild joke, not a withering indictment. Still, it should be said that nothing in this film builds a case for these junkies as victims of society. Is society hypocritical about which addictions are and are not acceptable? Sure. But even in terms of the film, it's a far leap from this observation to the idea that the hell that Renton and his friends put themselves through has a thing to do with their being social outcasts.
This, of course, is the source of the ultimate touch of dissatisfaction one may feel toward Trainspotting--not toward the filmmaking, which is masterly, nor toward the ensemble acting, which is wry and sexy and funny and poignant throughout--but toward the drama. As with some of the great movies about criminals, you may find yourself thinking, after a while, yes, this is awfully well-done, and these characters are quite likable, but is there a reason, beyond this, that I ought to watch them? The point that substance addiction is horrible to endure and vexing to cure has hardly gone unmade in movies, and the point that society turns its nose up at some substances while accepting others is true, but small and irrelevant here. Obviously, it would be both false and unhelpful to write off junkies as mere scum, but Boyle is so doggedly nonjudgmental that he begins to do the opposite. Unlike Gus Van Sant, who made us see the pillheads in his great Drugstore Cowboy as Sisyphean clowns, Boyle comes close to hinting that his junkies, even as they prove disloyal to each other, are heroic outsiders in their unflinching acceptance of a wretched identity. When Renton says of his addiction, "I chose not to choose life, I chose something else," it can't help but sound a bit impressively tough-minded.
This is silliness, to be sure, but it's criticizable more because it's silliness passing itself off as high drama than because it's unintentional propaganda for heroin. There has been some fretting that Trainspotting "glamorizes" heroin use. Does it? The short answer is yes: When Renton and three pals exit a train (the only one I noticed in the film, except for those in the wallpaper in Renton's bedroom) and stand framed in a low angle on the station platform, they look like a rock band. This type of imagery becomes even more overt late in the film, when Renton's gang crosses the street in London on the way to its one attempt at a big drug transaction, and suddenly it's the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. Sure, some fool out there is going to find this enviable.
But to a hipster-wanna-be desperately stupid enough to buy the idea of heroin addiction as glam, there's probably not much help anyway. Show a junkie reduced to diving headfirst into a toilet to such a person, and he or she will likely regard it as the highest of endorsements.
Directed by Danny Boyle; with Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Peter Mullan, Susan Vidler, Kelly Macdonald, James Cosmo, Eileen Nicholas, Pauline Lynch and Irvine Welsh.