Not only is Danny Boyle’s seminal masterpiece over twenty years old by now, but the sequel is right around the corner, quite literally for myself in fact. So it should come as no surprise that I want to look back on the 1996 film. It is easy to underestimate just how brilliant ‘Trainspotting’ is, one could see it as little more than an aimless story of junkies in the squalor of urban Edinburgh. But by adapting Irvine Welsh’s novel, Boyle tapped into a culture so perfectly and summarised an entire state of mind without fault that it is remarkable to experience it again today.
One question I’m always asked by people who have never seen the film is why it is called ‘Trainspotting’. If they don’t already know that the film is about heroin addiction they seem especially taken aback when I tell them that, at which point they just ask the same question those who do know what the film is about will say, “Why is it called ‘Trainspotting’?” Irvine Welsh has faced similar questioning concerning his original novel. He stated that trainspotting is seen as a boring and pointless hobby by almost anyone others than those who partake in it. Those who have never tried it can never see the point of it.
The script makes the same case for heroin. Unlike many other films of its era that tackle the same subject matter ‘Trainspotting’ made the bold decision to neither condemn nor condone drug use. It acknowledges the terrible, life crushing aftereffects of it. It can be degrading and dehumanizing on so many levels. The film never even gives an explicit reason as to why Mark Renton and his friends indulge in the poison, but as the main character himself proudly states at the start of the movie “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
To be fair that is not strictly true. Through its imagery and environments the film alludes to the deeper meaning behind drug use, the idea that through the squalor and decay lies the other side, the endless feeling of bliss. For the characters of ‘Trainspotting’ heroin is a tool from which to take the pain of life away, a means to cope with daily struggles and keep going until the next day. When Renton tries to wean himself off of heroin he still finds himself desperate for a hit in one way or another, whether it be through sex, alcohol or prescription drugs. Just one more hit to get him through the day.
Some of those prescription drugs are stolen from his own mother, with Renton noting that “she, in a more socially acceptable way, is also a drug addict”. ‘Trainspotting’ acknowledges the fact that everyone is an addict in some shape or form. The only thing that separates him from the public is that society does not frown upon their addictions. It shows us the alternatives in the form of Begbie, who lectures Renton about the evils of his addiction, but his own temperament and aggression serve as his addiction. He starts fights only to brag to his friends about them, this is his idea of a hit. Another example is in Tommy and the way that with his girlfriend, Lizzie, he seems content to live a drug free life. But when she leaves him he descends into heroin addiction like the others, replacing one hit with another. Even Sick Boy seeks solace in his admiration of Sean Connery, but it all leads back to the heroin.
As with all forms of addiction there is a severe down turn for each stimulant. When Tommy, Renton and Spud go looking for sex and find it there is a drawback for all of them. Spud is too intoxicated to actually have intercourse and then…..well you know the rest. Tommy and Lizzie end up arguing over a misplaced sex-tape and as for Mark. Well he discovers the woman he picked up and had sex with is actually a fifteen year old schoolgirl who then proceeds to blackmail him into seeing her again.
If anything, the life these characters lead is only punctuated by a series of highs and lows. No matter how often it seems that they have reached a high point and are free of their misery, something pulls them back to reality and they are right back where they started. The film itself seems almost plotless, with little to no narrative drive or straightforward arc, but when looks closer it is easy to find. Everyone wants to get high, even if it’s just for a little bit.
The remarkable thing is that even with this commentary it would still be easy for ‘Trainspotting’ to look down upon its characters, to reassure the audience that they are different from us and deserve to be separate. But it never does. It marks them out as fully realised people and by replicating iconic cultural images like Nirvana albums and Beatles covers, but inserting his own characters into them, Boyle has placed Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie within our own society and make them a part of us. We are no longer mere observers, and the way Boyle incorporates pop culture into his story provides a connection to our world as well as a way to invigorate us. We are wired into the psyches of the characters, feeling their bliss, excitement, longing, pain and heartbreak through the films use of music.
It also helps that the cast are superb on all fronts. If the film has any moral code it is Renton, played to perfection by Ewan McGregor. His manic and wild performance is underpinned with an air of sadness, especially in the films quieter moments. It makes us realise that Mark understands the futility of his current existence, but where most people would turn to other forms of refuge, he takes heroin. McGregor makes us see Mark’s position in between societies, blocked by the rest of the world but not ready to give in and succumb to the abys as his friends do. Robert Carlisle brings such an urgent energy to Begbie that you can immediately sense his presence and his personality before he even throws his first punch. Ewen Bremmer and Johnny Lee Miller round off the quartet of friends, and both bring a unique personality to their respective characters, but at the same time they are both linked by the common oppression of their addictions.
But the most valuable player of all may be Danny Boyle himself. When ‘Trainspotting’ was first released Boyle earned comparisons to the likes of Scorsese and Tarantino, and in my opinion he is certainly worthy of such praise. He directs ‘Trainspotting’ with a sense of energy that few other directors could bring to the material. His camera is vibrant and ever moving, capturing the raw intensity and urgency of how these characters are living their lives. His wide angles, vivid colours and perfect compositions all draw us deeper into the pulse pounding rollercoaster, more expressionistic than realistic at times as he renders the internal as external. But at the same time he lets us see the deeper themes of his movie.
Danny Boyle did far more than just tap into a popular culture by making ‘Trainspotting’. With his cast and equally powerful source material he sought to inject a dose of reality straight into his audience and he did so in the most effective way he could. Through ‘Trainspotting’ Boyle is not just taking us for a ride, he wants us to see the big picture, however fleeting or hopeless it may be.