The second film from the team that made 1994's Shallow Grave (screenwriter John Hodge, director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald, and star Ewan McGregor) delivers the kind of drugged-out nihilistic rush that cinematic adaptations of Naked Lunch and The Basketball Diaries failed to convey despite their best efforts. Try to imagine A Clockwork Orange if Stanley Kubrick had used heroin, or Mean Streets as written by William Burroughs. In adapting Irvine Welsh's cult novel, director Boyle and screenwriter Hodge never pull a punch; from casual male frontal nudity to scatological sight gags, their outrageous film goes places few other movies would dare, and does so with a nervous passion and unsentimental edge that will repulse as many viewers as it exhilarates.
The film loosely details the exploits of a quintet of homeboys in Edinburgh, Scotland, as they do their damnedest to ameliorate the pain of everyday life in a decaying world without much promise. Four of them -- Renton (Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Tommy (Kevin McKidd) -- select heroin as their painkiller of choice, while a fifth, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), downs massive quantities of alcohol and chases it with bursts of psychotic violence. None of these guys wants your sympathies; these characters aren't victims. They're intelligent, perceptive young men with nowhere to go, men whose ideals and ambitions, in the words of novelist Welsh, "outstrip what society has to offer them."
Renton, the amoral soul of the group, sums it up best when he rages, "I hate being Scottish. We're the lowest of the fucking low, the scum of the Earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some people hate the English, but I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, were colonized by wankers. We are ruled by effete arseholes. It's a shite state of affairs."
So the guys shoot smack to dull the edge. Trainspotting's frank depictions of the pleasures of heroin addiction will shock viewers accustomed to more conventional anti-drug messages. Listen to Renton again: "People think it's all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. After all, we're not fucking stupid. At least, we're not that fucking stupid. Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand, and you're still nowhere near it. When you're on junk you have only one worry: scoring. When you're off it you are suddenly obliged to worry about all sorts of other shite. Got no money: can't get pissed. Got money: drinking too much. Can't get a bird: no chance of a ride. Got a bird: too much hassle. You have to worry about bills, about food, about some football team that never fucking wins, about human relationships and all the things that really don't matter when you've got a sincere and truthful junk habit."
But Trainspotting isn't so much glorifying the drug as merely paying the devil his due. The film spits directly into the face of the Just Say No crowd, refuting that simplistic approach to combating the drug epidemic. Trainspotting eloquently argues that you can't beat the drug until you understand its appeal. So the movie does its best to depict the euphoria as well as the risks of mainlining. (Few films have more vehemently portrayed the downside of heroin use, from the fever-dream hallucinations of a junkie kicking cold turkey to the wrenching, desolate expiration of a golden-boy-turned-zombie who contracts AIDS when he shoots up to ease a broken heart.) And that balance will no doubt be perceived by the Nancy Reagans of the world as a glamorization of smack, and will ignite a shite storm of controversy.
If the film has a weakness, it's the chummy guys-only mentality. Some of Trainspotting's funniest scenes occur in the early going, when Renton and his mates skirmish with the opposite sex. But by the end of the film the women have been reduced to afterthoughts, and have served only to hasten the men's slide into junkiedom.
But you won't be thinking about that during the movie. You'll be straining to keep up with the brilliant dialogue delivered in thick Scottish accents that merit subtitles here in the U.S. despite the film's being in English. Renton's unvarnished diatribes scorch with their fury and accuracy, while Sick Boy's fascination with James Bond sets up a quietly hilarious running gag paralleling the downward trajectory of Sean Connery's career with the decline of civilization. Boyle's frenetic camerawork propels the film through its occasional murky moments, and the film's moody, eclectic soundtrack finds its primary voice in Nineties Brit-pop (Elastica, Pulp, Blur, Underworld) yet manages to seamlessly blend in Bach, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed as well.
From McGregor's scathingly sardonic Renton to Bremner's hapless Spud to Carlyle's chillingly sociopathic Begbie, the performances are uniformly outstanding. The actors inhabit their roles so effortlessly and naturally you'll feel as if you're right there with them, shooting up in some godforsaken Edinburgh flat, rolling an unsuspecting Yank tourist who wanders into the wrong pub, or stealing a television set from an old-folks home. And when Boyle and Hodge loose the surreal visuals -- Renton plunging into the world's most disgusting toilet to retrieve a pair of opium suppositories, or a dead baby crawling across a ceiling -- you'll share the characters' desperation and terror. In passages like those, Trainspotting hits you like a locomotive slamming into a Volkswagen Beetle stalled on the tracks. It's an intense, riveting, one-of-a-kind moviegoing experience. All aboard.
Written by John Hodge from the novel by Irvine Welsh; directed by Danny Boyle; with Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, and Robert Carlyle.