Trainspotting: 25 Years Later
It seems only yesterday that Danny Boyle’s bravura and celebratory adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s seminal novel blew the socks off of me and my friends. It was the most buzzed about film of that year’s Cannes film festival – a zeitgeist phenomenon that exposed the social anxieties and despair of Scotland and became an international box office success. It was made on a low-budget (£2m) and made £12 million in the domestic market and $72 million internationally. By the time it opened in North America, on July 19, 1996, Trainspotting was the highest-grossing British film of the year, and at the time it was the fourth highest-grossing British film in history. Producer Andrew MacDonald worked with Miramax Films to sell the film as a British Pulp Fiction, flooding the market with postcards, posters, books, soundtrack albums, and a revamped music video for “Lust for Life” directed by Danny Boyle himself. Needless to say, it had a remarkable marketing campaign and was fortunate to have PolyGram supportive enough to carry the film into the mainstream consciousness. Since then, Trainspotting is regularly listed as one of the best British films ever made, while the public voted it the best Scottish film of all time. And it’s easy to see why.
The thing about Trainspotting is that we hadn’t seen a film quite like it before. Here was a dynamic, stylish, exciting, thought-provoking film released in the late 90s, before the internet was a household item, about a group of heroin addicts in an economically depressed area of Edinburgh and their deeply depressive passage through life. For those of us young at the time, it was a gateway into a part of the world we’d never seen before, featuring one dazzling sequence after another, many of which still burn in our collective cinematic consciousness. Tarantino had given us vivid dips of violence, sex, and drugs, but not even Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction could prepare us for what we were about to see. Trainspotting was a completely different beast. It was the sort of film you would rent at a video store on VHS, bring home and watch with your jaw dropping and your eyes glued to the screen. It was one of a handful of movies that made me want to make movies, write about movies, and talk about movies. It’s bleak, fast, funny, scary, and it took more risks than any film released that decade. In fact, even to this day, it would be hard to name a movie about drugs more electrifying and terrifying than Trainspotting. In nearly every scene director Danny Boyle and his cast conjured up a sense that each frame had its finger on the pulse of a generation of disenfranchised Scottish hooligans.
One of the most appealing things about Trainspotting is its relentless, fast-paced energy. The opening minutes alone stand as a defining moment in cinematic history, as we watch Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his friends evade the police on foot while he delivers the now iconic “Choose Life” voiceover narration to the dynamic thump of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” It stands as one of the finest openings to any movie, proudly sitting alongside the likes of A Clockwork Orange or Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. And who could forget the baby on the ceiling or Spud’s morning breakfast surprise? There isn’t one scene in Trainspotting that isn’t memorable. Spud’s speed-bewildering job interview is one of the greatest rants ever delivered on screen, and Trainspotting’s toilet scene, where Renton metaphorically dives into the “worst toilet in Scotland” to retrieve opium suppositories, while scored by Brian Eno’s hypnotic “Deep Blue Day,” is a masterclass in filmmaking.
Much like the novel, the film is really a collection of linked short stories about a group of young, broke, unemployed punks who are beyond hope. They fill the void any which way they can — be it stealing, drinking themselves unconscious, watching porn, picking fights in pubs, and of course, by shooting heroin. Given the subject matter, in the hands of a less talented group of filmmakers Trainspotting could have been a meaningless vile exercise in style, much like Jonas Åkerlund’s Spun. Fortunately, the project benefited from the tight-knit team that previously worked on Boyle’s first film, the exhilarating noir/thriller Shallow Grave. Returning was writer John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald (also Trainspotting’s editor and production designer), and cinematographer Brian Tufano, whose camera work was extremely influential in reinforcing the disorder and the chaos of the characters’ lives. Known in the film industry as “the man with the Midas touch,” his work here cannot go unmentioned. The wildly imaginative (and downright hallucinatory) visual imagery, achieved through a mix of a handheld camerawork, jump cuts, quick zooms, freeze frames, and wide angle shots, is nothing short of dazzling. For the look of the film, Boyle was influenced by the colours of Francis Bacon’s paintings, which represented “a sort of in-between land – part reality, part fantasy” and the scene where Renton dives in a toilet is a reference to Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow. But the most striking sequence remains the film’s nightmarish and surreal centerpiece set to the longing strains of Lou Reed’s glam-era “Perfect Day.” I love how Boyle and Tufano staged a masterful sequence in a way that accurately exhibits the horrors of withdrawal and vividly communicate the regret Renton feels without the use of dialogue. Trainspotting‘s narrative panache, use of sound (both diegetic and non-diegetic), colourful set design, and kinetic energy made it feel unlike any film of the time, and it didn’t hurt that it was coupled with a best-selling soundtrack to boot.
At the heart of the film is a young talented cast led by the anti-hero Renton (Ewan McGregor), the dim and socially awkward Spud (Ewen Bremner), the slimy, twisted Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and the duplicitous con artist Begbie (Robert Carlyle). The majority of the pic follows the gang of four on their misguided adventures until Renton meets the underage party girl Dianne (played by Kelly Macdonald, making her film acting debut). Realizing he’s missing something meaningful in life, he sets out to kick his habit once and for all. From there it doesn’t take long before Trainspotting emerges as a movie about a lonely man surrounded by his best friends he has outgrown. As Renton fights to get clean, he’s pulled back into the mix for one last scam. In the end, the only way out is for Renton to escape his friends and everything he’s ever known and loved.
After the ’80s crack epidemic, heroin made a huge comeback in the ’90s. While movies like Pulp Fiction glossed over the dangerous use of the drug, Trainspotting, despite its supercharged, sulfurous humour, painted an ugly picture of what it can do to those using it. Boyle’s camera gets so close to the actors at times, that the short distance becomes somewhat discomforting. He’s not afraid to show needles injected, track marks along their arms, blood dripping from their veins, vomiting, explosive diarrhea, and bodily fluids being exchanged in all sorts of unhygienic matters. Trainspotting presents us with a bunch of kids who seem to be victims of circumstance and class struggle, yet there’s a simple vicarious thrill in observing their criminal behavior. More importantly, it never waves the moralist’s finger at addicts; it’s up to the audience to make up their mind about how they feel about Renton and his friends. In the end, Trainspotting has an anti-drug message, and it might just be the best anti-drug movie – one that isn’t interested in preaching. As for the title: Trainspotting is the compulsive collecting of locomotive engine numbers from the British railway system, something you collect but you can’t do anything with once you’ve collected them. It’s a simple metaphor for doing something that gives your life a slight distraction but is ultimately pointless — much like the smack they inject.
Though Trainspotting‘s story is dark in tone, and much of the humor is blacker than the grim reaper’s robe, Boyle never loses sight on what makes these characters human, just like you and I. Death may be slowly creeping in on Renton and his friends, but the movie couldn’t feel more alive. And even after all these years, Trainspotting remains an aural and visceral thrill ride.
– Ricky D