Trainspotting (1996)

Rating: B+

Dir: Danny Boyle
Star: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle

The problem with most movies about drugs is they fall into one of two categories:
a) Aren’t drugs great?
b) Aren’t drugs terrible?
I’m not sure which is worse. The latter is easy to mock, as things like Reefer Madness show, but I’d argue that the former – exemplified by The Trip, one of the few films to have bored me so much, I walked out – is little better. For as with most things, the truth lies in the middle. There’s no arguing about the potential downside of drugs: particularly hard drugs (although worth noting, I’ve never met anyone who was a better person on weed). But it’d take a fool to deny their appeal, providing an escape route into a world that, for many people, is a damn sight better than the real one.

Trainspotting gets it right. There are parts which are almost an infomercial for the joys of heroin: “Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by a thousand… and you’re still nowhere near it.” But the destructive impact drugs can have is absolutely not glossed over in any way. Renton (McGregor) is haunted by visions of the friend’s baby who died while his parents were off their heads on smack. And then there’s the Worst Toilet in Scotland scene, in which he goes bobbing for opium suppositories. As an anti-drug message, it’s a bit more effective than “Just Say No,” put it that way.

The other strength is characters who mostly seem like real people, to a startling degree, not often seen in movies. They’re not intrinsically “good” or “bad”, they instead have a depth which comes only from possessing aspects of both. Sick Boy (Miller) is a charming rogue, who can expound at length on the merits of Sean Connery. Spud (Bremner) is a bit dim, yet loyal to a fault. And there’s Begbie (Carlyle). A psychopath and proud of it, he instigates violence then demands retribution: or as he puts it, “That lassie got glassed, and no cunt leaves here till we find out what cunt did it.” He is perhaps the scariest Scotsman ever depicted on film, yet is the only one who doesn’t do hard drugs.

Writer John Hodge does a masterful job of taking a book written from multiple points of view and hammering it into a coherent whole, albeit one where narrative is very much secondary. The only real “plot” arc shows up late, when the four lead characters stumble into the chance of a big drug deal, and temporarily join Renton in London to execute it. The rest of the film is largely a series of loosely connected incidents: a trip to the country; Renton hooking up with a girl (Kelly McDonald) who turns out to be under age, or trying to kick his heroin habit. It’s all very episodic, yet between the performances and the energetic direction from Boyle, thoroughly engrossing.

A huge element of this is the soundtrack. Boyle has an incredible ear for picking songs that don’t just fit, they actively enhance the atmosphere. Though watching the film with closed captions (being for the benefit of Chris, given some of those Scottish accents!) lent a surreal air to it, since they also included the song lyrics. I feel I was probably better off not knowing that Lust For Life included lines such as “That’s like hypnotizing chickens.” UWOTM8? Normally, there’d be a risk such a reliance on pop music could lead to the film dating badly. This does not appear to be the case here: while the songs do locate the film in its specific era, they’ve aged very well, further testament to Boyle’s wise choices.

What probably surprised me most, twenty years on, is how funny the film is. Sure, it’s a bleak, black comedy born from a very dark place, but there are significant chunks that still made me laugh out loud. Spud’s speed-fuelled job interview, or Renton’s rant about how, “It’s shite being Scottish.” It’s a testament to how well put together the movie is, it can range from this to the terrible death of an addict – though even this has a morbid humour in its cause – without ever seeming forced or trite.