Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)

“Just one last hit.” Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) says that it’s all he needs several times throughout Trainspotting, but he is talking about heroin, so you know that there is never “one last hit.” As the story begins in medias res, Renton gives a monologue about all the things someone should choose in their life, amounting to essentially choosing “life,” but he confesses that he and his mates chose heroin. When you are on heroin, the bills and your job and the “football team that never wins” and the poverty of your town and the baby you are neglecting don’t matter, so these guys do what they can to stay high.

Trainspotting is hyper-stylized, told almost entirely in montage for the first half, with constant voiceover, so the heroin use is almost glorified visually. The injections always appear neat and controlled and the characters consider it the best thing in their lives. Still, the aforementioned monologue that opens the film makes clear that Trainspotting is not glorifying drug use. The euphoria of the characters is displayed in the energetic montage and the Iggy Pop and Brian Eno music, but when you watch the characters lie completely still, spread-out on the floor as a baby crawls around entirely unattended, we tune into director Danny Boyle’s twisted sense of irony.

Renton is constantly trying to quit heroin, but his mates, the good-hearted but naïve Spud, the James  Bond-obsessed Sick Boy, and the violent, perhaps sociopathic Begbie, are far less able than he, and even his clean roommate Tony finds himself falling victim after a break-up.  Renton is the most intelligent and articulate of the group, and the movie is, thankfully his memory and not one of the others’, and his commentary ranges from humorous to insightful with a tendency toward the latter. His rarely tells us what can see without his assistance, it does what cinematic narration should even as it brushes plot points aside by the handful.

Plot is not the strongpoint of the film; if it were not for the unrelenting energy seeping out of the picture it would hardly be worth watching. Instead, Boyle demonstrates excellent command of tone and pacing to keep us interested. There is nary a moment where Trainspotting loses its vivacity or style. The highpoint is certainly the night of clubbing, where a few characters find themselves getting lucky with vastly different women and Boyle’s soundtrack ranges from rock music to soccer commentary to bring punny (visual and aural) interconnectedness to the stories without ever forcing the viewer to work too hard. It’s an impressive display of almost Eisensteinian montage and of music, and it’s what keeps Trainspotting alive for the remainder of its running time.

Boyle’s best gags are visual, such as when the friends, newly (but not lastingly) sober see Scotland in what obviously resembles a theater set, a great parallel to the group being so used to heroin that the sober world seems fake to them. When a character overdoses, the carpet and floor appear to open beneath him, and from then on he looks up at the rest of the world, representing both his skewed, drug-induced world and calling to mind the creating of one’s own grave brought on by abuse of hard drugs. A cold turkey withdrawal is portrayed with the same level of cleverness and authenticity, as the slightest changes in camera placement make us literally see something in a new light just as the addict realizes that he is hallucinating. There is no question that the drug-fueled adrenaline of the film’s first half is its better half, when Boyle effortlessly creates visuals that work on multiple levels and maintain the rock and roll zeal.

The second half left me longing for the visual invention, but the fast pace and great soundtrack kept me invested. There is not a lot to reckon with on a thematic level, but the film does end appropriately, optimistic but ambiguous. Still, the film never capitalizes on some of the understated themes of its first half. Renton’s girlfriend observes that as he has been using heroin, the city, the world, and music have changed, and yet we never see Renton adapt or penetrate the new culture. It is hinted that his job becomes a replacement addiction, as he lists off the real-estate jargon the way he previously listed off pills he steals, but this too is never developed beyond the tiny suggestion, and so “addiction” becomes more of a plot point than an actual theme . Scotland’s relationship to England is briefly mentioned but never explored, and Edinburgh specifically wants to be more than a setting but never fully takes off. Boyle never chases any of these down, seemingly afraid that doing so will stifle the ardor. Trainspotting has a handful of missed opportunities, opting for imitation over insight, but it’s appropriately intense with regards to its subject matter and yet still finds a way to be a memorable bout of fun.

Grade: B

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