Trainspotting (1996, Danny Boyle)


The last image of The 400 Blows, of a boy running away, is the first image of Trainspotting, and the film itself — a remarkably intelligent, frantically well-edited, visually adventurous piece of work — expands on the reasons and consequences for such a moment. Except that Antoine Doinel is finally discovering liberation; Ewan McGregor’s character is just bounding farther into self-imposed misery which every passing minute. He’s a heroin addict living the day-to-day layabout life in Scotland, until despairing circumstances lead him to leave his circle of friends behind and try to make a life as an upstanding citizen. Inevitably, his former cycles catch up.

Danny Boyle’s extremely influential (to sometimes unfortunate effect) 1996 breakthrough is an inventive, frenetic drug film in the vein of a subdued Lester or Godard that is neither sensationalistic or condescending; it’s human, warm, and quite funny, but also refuses to gloss over the agony of the Scotland underworld it depicts, casting an unblinking eye toward the squalor caused by heroin addiction while never ignoring the things that keep the users enslaved. At its most breathless, it evokes the unblinking intensity of its antiheroes on their most shameless binge, but all this excitement leads only to desperation and doom. Boyle’s dabblings in surrealism make the whole thing move quite smoothly without overreaching like so many drug movies from Easy Rider to Fear and Loathing to Requiem for a Dream.

Those films all are drunk (or high) on the possibilities of the cinematic medium to lay out the drug experience; in the case of Trainspotting Boyle’s unorthodox camera movements and the wild ideas grown out from Irvine Welsh’s novel seem an apt elaboration simultaneously on the infinite joy and hopelessness of youth. The difference mostly lies in the sympathies one is given toward Ewan McGregor’s Mark in the lead, and the confidence one has in the sincerity of the lives in the world depicted. The violence and grittiness are given added weight because of the consciousness toward the absurdity of it all; even when the film attains a linear structure and traditional caper madness at the end, it still retains its freshness and vitality because the characterization is so beautifully defined.

Boyle also sells the story with a blend of imagination and discomfort that combine for an often magical unpleasance. The reputation this got for glorifying drugs in the U.S. is laughable; one needs only see the brilliant “kicking the habit” scene of McGregor locked in his bedroom to drop the theory that Trainspotting makes excuses for addiction. The same for the infamous toilet scene (wherein Mark dives into a disgusting public commode to retrieve a suppository) — so disgusting it is all but impossible to take, and yet so disgusting and disturbing it becomes poetic in its grossness, even dreamlike. But the film also dares to suggest that drugs are not the entire problem, and indeed, its most evil character is fervently against narcotic use. The job of this film is to make these addicts and their problems human, relatable, real, not to scold them (like Requiem) — it succeeds brilliantly. Aggressive, funny, tortured, delightful, unbearable, it’s a courageous movie start to finish.

[Slight expansion of a 2007 review.]

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