“The streets are awash with drugs you can have for unhappiness and pain, and we took them all. Fuck it, we would have injected vitamin C if only they’d made it illegal.”
With the teaser trailer for Trainspotting 2 dropping this week, I figured it was time to revisit the original ’96 hit, a film with so much drug use that the movie itself starts to take you into another world. This is one of the sloppiest, grimiest, most frantic films you’ll ever see, but it somehow builds into something spectacular. Based on the 1993 novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting is a thrill ride. It may not nestle you into its arms and make you feel warm and safe, but you’ll walk away terribly impressed by how beautifully a story about a bunch of drug addicts can be told on screen. As always, this blog does not condone drug use. It merely recommends it.
The “hero” of the film is Mark Renton (played by Ewan McGregor), a heroin addict among a group of equally addicted pals Spud, Sick Boy, and Franco. Renton isn’t a shining figure by any means, but he seems to serve as the moral center of the group, as he’s the only one that makes any effort to break himself from the habit. His character reminds me of an essay by Chuck Palahniuk I once read which describes how an audience (or reader, in the case of a novel) can be won over by a story’s narrator. Palahniuk describes the heart method, where the narrator shows vulnerability and earns empathy from the audience, but also the head method, where the narrator can list off facts about a subject matter and prove themselves so qualified to tell the story that the audience can’t help but put their trust in them. Renton is a perfect example of this “head method.” From the start, he relays what it’s like to be a heroin addict with such detail, such honesty, that you almost feel honored to have such an exclusive tour of his world. This is one of Trainspotting’s greatest achievements. Renton isn’t a great person, but he’s a great character to tell this story. He always checks in with the audience in some wonderfully written narration that helps you understand the mind of a heroin addict. All the nuances of his addiction are so believable that you start to root for him.
This brings me to another success of Trainspotting: the details. This comes in the form of the dialogue, the narration, and the visuals. Every grimy wall, every dirty syringe, every disgusting phrase that slides out of one of these characters’ mouths – director Danny Boyle builds an atmosphere of murk and squalor through these details that really helps sell the world to us. Trainspotting isn’t a movie about plot. The text on which it’s based is just a series of stories, many of which didn’t even make their way into the film. It’s meant to be ingested as an experience. You get a look into these guys’ world. It’s repulsive and scattered at times, but it wouldn’t work otherwise. You can’t try and tell this story with polish, or it wouldn’t feel honest anymore. Boyle is working with a filthy vision that comes across beautifully, no matter how much discomfort is may bring.
That being said, there’s something dark and poetic about it all. The way the closing lines mirror the opening of the film to show how Renton has changed, the visual exploration of the drug trips through offbeat cinematic techniques, and that goddamn baby. A film like Wolf of Wall Street might revel in the excess of its hero, but Trainspotting is unafraid to show the horrible consequences of the decisions its hero makes. It’s not exactly a cautionary tale, but there are lessons to be learned. The ending isn’t perfect, but it leaves you with some hope for Renton. Not only can people change, but they can succeed. It just takes willpower.
Many would call Trainspotting a masterpiece, although I’m not sure it accomplishes enough. It’s certainly a groundbreaking film and incredibly bold, one that I’ll keep revisiting into the future, but it’s not for everyone. I’m sure some might feel that the drug use and the amorality of the gang is glorified and that the film itself is overindulgent and works on shock value, but I think there’s more to it than that. For a movie about drug use, it can be flippant at times, but it heaps enough reality onto the viewer that it’s grounded in a dark sort of melancholy. This is one of those films where you’re never quite sure how to feel, making it a really fun experience to inject- er, watch.
Films Left to Watch: 933