Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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This film's title, Trainspotting, derives from an old British obsession with counting trains as a way to mark the passage of time, to enliven an otherwise dreary existence. Shooting drugs can likewise serve that kind of purpose, as director Danny Boyle reveals in an exceptionally hip and compelling film from 1996.
Historical Background: Director Danny Boyle was born in Manchester, England on October 20th, 1956. He made a big splash with his innovative debut film, Shallow Grave, in 1994, but topped that with Trainspotting two years later. For each of those films, Boyle worked with screenwriter John Hodge. Boyle has since directed The Beach (2000), Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise (2001), Strumpet (2001), Alien Love Triangle (2002), 28 Days Later (2002), and Millions (2004).
The Story: The story of this film revolves around a group of heroin addicts who share a camaraderie based on their shared way of life. At the center of the story is Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), who also provides voiceover narration. In the opening instance of voiceover narration, Renton provides us with the addict's classic rationale for his way of life: "Choose life," says Renton mockingly. "Choose mortgage payments, choose washing machines, choose cars, choose sitting on a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffin' fuckin' junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin' embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats ye've produced. Choose life." Then, as though satisfied that he's made his case, Renton adds, "I chose not to choose life. I chose to choose something else."
Soon, we are watching Renton and his friend Spud (Ewen Bremner) being chased down the streets of Edinburgh by a couple of security guards, to the strains of Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life." They've been caught shoplifting and are trying to make a getaway. Now, just as quickly, the story flashes back to the pad where Renton and his friends hang out and shoot up. Spud is there, high on smack. So is the dealer Swanney (Peter Mullan). Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), a boyish blond who spouts trivia relating to Sean Connery and the early 007 movies, is helping his girlfriend Allison (Susa Vidler) shoot up, while the voiceover narration explains why they do it: "Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you're still nowhere near it." Then, as we watch a look of ineffable pleasure pass over Allison's face, she adds, "Oh, that beats any fuckin' cock in the world." In the background, we see Allison's infant child, Dawn, playing aimlessly, unattended.
READER ALERT. THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH RECOUNTS A DISGUSTING (THOUGH MARVELOUSLY HUMOROUS) SCENE. DON'T READ ON A FULL STOMACH!
Renton resolves to get off junk and gathers together the necessary accoutrements for the effort: ice cream, milk of magnesia, water, a television set, Valium, porn magazines, and three buckets (one each for urine, feces, and vomit). Then he nails his bedroom door shut. Soon, however, he realizes that he'll need some narcotics to ease the severity of his withdrawal symptoms. He contacts a dealer, Mikey Forrester (Irvine Welsh, who was also the author of the source novel), who provides two opium suppositories. Renton shoves the two suppositories where suppositories go and heads home. Soon, however, Renton is struck by an urgent attack of diarrhea. (Heroin causes constipation and therefore diarrhea occurs during withdrawal.) He rushes into a bar to use the men's room and discovers the most disgusting men's room in all of Scotland. The only stall is splattered with excrement and the commode is half full as well. Renton's situation is so pressing, however, that he has no choice but to use what's available. In the ensuing evacuation, the still intact opium suppositories are flushed out. The desperate Renton then has to fish around in the toilet bowl for the much-needed medication. Amazingly, in a surreal segment, Renton topples full-body down the toilet drain into a pool of crystal clear blue water. After a few moments he reemerges from the commode with the opium suppositories in hand.
Spud has to go for a job interview or risk losing his welfare payments. He desperately wants to be turned down. Renton fixes him up with some speed (methamphetamine) to ensure that he'll be totally whacked out during the interview. The intensely hyped-up Spud delivers the veritable interview from hell. Another member of Renton's crowd is Begbie (Robert Carlyle). He steadfastly refuses to do narcotics but scoffs down beer like it was spring water. Begbie is your basic psychopath, even when he's sober, but all the more so when he's intoxicated. At the local bar, Begbie heaves a beer mug over his shoulder, hitting a girl on the head. Then, he picks a fight with her boyfriend, kicking the man in the nuts, triggering a brawl.
Another friend of Renton, Tommy (Kevin McKidd), makes sex videos with his girlfriend Lizzy (Pauline Lynch). Renton and Sick Boy pull a switch, substituting a soccer tape for the sex video, taking the sex video home with them so they can watch Tommy and Lizzy going at it. Tommy and Lizzy end up making love with the soccer game blaring in the background ("What a penetrating goal that was!" says the announcer.). Lizzy is irate when she discovers that their sex tape is missing and breaks up with Tommy.
At a nightclub, all of the boys are out scrounging for sex. Even Renton has got his sex drive back, now that he's unhooked himself from whack. Spud is being jerked around by a gal named Gail (Shirley Henderson), who wants to wait before having sex, not because of any moral scruples but because she enjoys tormenting the guy. By the time she decides to relent, Spud is too drunk to perform. Renton manages to pick up a precocious young thing, Diane (Kelly Macdonald), who sees through his every move and is consistently three steps ahead of him. In the morning, he discovers that she's just a schoolgirl (hence, jailbait) and finds himself awkwardly breakfasting with her parents. Meanwhile, Spud wakes up amidst his own excrement, having dumped during the night in the bed at his girlfriend's house. He sheepishly delivers the filthy sheets to the girl's mom, but in the ensuing wrestling match over them, the feces get splattered all around.
Tommy tries to lift the spirits of his friends by taking them for a walk in the Scottish countryside. Renton doesn't have a bit of patriotic spirit, however, declaring, "It's shite being Scottish. We're the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth. The most miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some people hate the English. I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. We can't even find a decent culture to be colonized by. We're ruled by effete arseholes."
Spud, Sick Boy, and Renton decide to get back on heroin. That means lots of robberies, breaking into cars, stealing drugs and televisions from nursing homes, and beating up tourists to support their habits. Tommy, still grieving over Lizzy's rejection, decides to try junk as well. Allison is so whacked out that baby Dawn dies in her crib from neglect. Allison finds this turn of events so upsetting that she needs a fix right away! Even Sick Boy, the bady's father, is mildly distressed! It's around this time that the film catches up to the opening scene in which Spud and Renton are being pursued by security guards after a shoplifting escapade. Spud is sent off to prison but Renton gets off with committal to a methadone program. The methadone doesn't tide him over well enough, however, and Renton soon overdoses by shooting heroin on top of his oral methadone. After a trip to the emergency room, Renton is forced to go cold turkey by his parents. He experiences miserable hallucinations, involving the trains on his wallpaper moving about, Allison's dead baby crawling across the ceiling, and his parents appearing on a bizarre game show. Meanwhile, Tommy tests HIV positive.
Renton leaves Scotland, on Diane's advice, and tries to make a fresh start in London, away from the old crowd. He has some success showing apartments to yuppie couples, but soon this little taste of normality is distressed by the arrival of Begbie, who is on the lam after an armed robbery. Begbie moves into Renton's apartment and takes over for old times sake. Soon, this pair is joined by Sick Boy, who now fancies getting into the pusher trade. When Sick Boy encounters an opportunity to buy some heroin from some Russian sailors, Renton is pressured to invest his £2000 savings in the scheme. As Renton says, "it's the dodgiest scam in a lifetime of dodgy scams." How this venture works out you'll need to discover from the film.
Themes: In my career as a psychopharmacologist, one facet of my work has revolved around drugs of abuse and drug abuse education. Trainspotting is primarily a work of art rather than an educational effort, but the approach that the film takes is also educationally sound. Some critics have lambasted this film as glamorizing heroin use, but nothing could be further from the truth. Trainspotting provides a fair and balanced depiction of both the incentives and liabilities relating to intravenous drug use. There has always been a segment of the establishment, both in the U.K. and in America, which imagines that the most effective way to discourage drug abuse is to churn out one-sided information focusing on the potential hazards of abuse while ignoring the euphoria and the "rush" that drugs can produce. The problem with that style of drug education effort is that users and incipient users quickly realize that the information being propagated by authorities doesn't comport with reality. The most effective approach in educating the public about drugs of abuse also happens to be the most honest one. Simply present all of the facts, truthfully both the reasons why people sometimes opt to use drugs and the actual risks that exist for each specific drug. That is precisely what Trainspotting does, whether by design or not. You see both the pleasure that the users derive from shooting heroin and some of the terrible potential consequences, including withdrawal, overdose, exposure to the HIV virus, and inability to carry out one's functional roles (such as caring for a baby). Intravenous drug use is currently the number one mode of AIDS transmission in America (though not worldwide). There is nothing glamorous about being so desperate that one shoves one's hands into a toilet to recover opium pellets. There is nothing glamorous about a dead infant or agonizing hallucinations. By acknowledging the attraction inherent in heroin and other drugs, the rest of the truthful and unglamorous information is rendered all the more credible.
Many addicts (including alcoholics) rationalize their chosen lifestyle by pointing glibly to the more despicable aspects of human society at large. We clearly see that kind of rationale at work in Renton's thinking. There's some truth in Renton's disdain for consumerism and some of the other mindless aspects of his parents' world, but his response, heroin addiction, amounts to substituting one meaningless lifestyle for another. I encourage people to join up with the counterculture to the extent that means rejecting what is shallow or exploitive about society at large. One should choose, however, from among the various counterculture alternatives, those options that represent positive alternatives rather than destructive ones. One can choose to reject most aspects of consumerism, for example. Chasing after the biggest car, the best kept yard, and the biggest pension can be a kind of addiction as well. One can instead stay focused on meaningful things like relationships, culture, learning, and personal growth, instead of simply substituting drug addiction for consumer addiction.
Production Values: The screenplay for this film was based on Irvine Welsh's wildly popular novel by the same name. The main shift in emphasis engineered by scriptwriter John Hodge was to focus the story around the character Mark Renton, whereas the book plays out more like a series of vignettes each featuring a different member of the group. Boyle and Hodge do a tremendous job keeping this film focused at the street level. They've opted for a subjective perspective rather than an objective one. We see life from the vantage point of the addicts, not outsiders looking on. It is this uncompromising bravado of perspective that most makes Trainspotting a very special movie.
This film is also visually sensational. Boyle pulls out all of the cinematic tricks to keep this film looking spectacular. There's lots of quick editing. One especially effective example is in Spud's interview scene when he's tripping on speed. There are also many splashes of brilliant psychedelic colors in some scenes, contrasting sharply with other scenes featuring the dreary browns of strewn excrement. There's some extraordinary use of surrealism, most notably in the toilet scene, but also during Renton's cold turkey episode. One can sense a bit of MTV influence in the film's rock score as well as the fast pace and frequent use of jump-cuts.
Ewan McGregor delivers, here, one of the best performances that I've seen him provide. It's a performance that is critical to the film's success, since it is his character that holds viewer sympathy despite many foolhardy decisions and potentially nauseating activities. McGregor had already worked with Danny Boyle in Shallow Grave (1994) and went on to such films as Emma (1996), The Pillow Book (1996), Brassed Off! (1996), Star War Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Moulin Rouge (2001), Black Hawk Down (2001), Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), Big Fish (2003), and Young Adam (2003).
Ewen Bremner is spot-on as Spud, eating the scenery in many of his scenes. Bremner had already played the role of Renton in the stage version of Trainspotting and getting him to agree to the technical downgrade to the part of Spud was quite a coup on the part of Boyle. Bremner's other work has included Naked (1993), Pearl Harbor (2001), and Black Hawk Down (2001). Kevin McKidd, who plays Tommy, is fast becoming one of my favorites. I thought he was outstanding in Bedrooms and Hallways (1998). Robert Carlyle's performance in this film, as Begbie, may actually be the film's best. His other work includes Riff-Raff (1991), Carla's Song (1996), (1997), Ravenous (1999), The World Is Not Enough (1999), Angela's Ashes (1999), and The Beach (2000). Kelly Macdonald, as Diane, was the standout among the women in the film. She later worked in Elizabeth (1998).
Bottom-Line: The Miramax Collector's Edition for this film is packed with extras, spread over two discs. The commentary track featuring Ewan McGregor, producer Andrew Macdonald, screenwriter John Hodge, and director Danny Boyle was my favorite of the extras, with plenty of interesting insights and anecdotes. There's also a "making of" documentary, a retrospective on the film, interviews with several of the principals, a piece revealing tactics behind one of the special effects (shooting up), interviews shot during the Cannes Film Festival in 1996 when this film was unofficially screened, deleted scenes with commentary, a couple of trailers, and a gallery of stills.
Another nice aspect of this product is that you'll be seeing the original uncut version of the film, which differs a bit from the previous American release that excised a few seconds from some of the sex scenes. This is a powerful film that is simultaneously hilarious and stunning. With down-and-dirty subject matter and an edgy, offbeat visual style, this is a film that can break the tedium of more typical fare. I highly recommend it.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age