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Essay: Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996)

on March 22 | in MOVIE REVIEWS | by | with 1 Comment

(This essay was written in preparation for T2 Trainspotting‘s US arrival on Friday, March 24.)

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television set, washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch, watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last into a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you’ve spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life… but why would I want to do a thing like that?

Amid the tromp-tromp-tromp of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” blaring on the soundtrack (and with only three minor corrections to the above quote, typed from memory), Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) outlines his satirical view of modern-day life in the opening of director Danny Boyle’s electrifying 1996 arthouse adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting. With this narration, spoken in a guttural, insider-trading kind of voice, Mark welcomes us into his threadbare, depravity-stricken world where his entire life centers around getting his next heroin fix and whatever he needs to do to score it.

As of this writing in 2017, twenty-three years have passed since Boyle burst onto the arthouse scene with his debut feature film Shallow Grave, a neo-noir (also starring McGregor) about three roommates suddenly split violently by the promise of large sums of cash. In the years following, Boyle would make his mark as one of cinema’s most visionary filmmakers, daring to venture where others feared to tread, tackling subjects and themes no other director would attempt – much less pull off in an inimitable style.

I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

If Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction brought a glamour to heroin use, Trainspotting was the bruised and track-marked hangover after Tarantino’s raging 1994 party. Gone were the glitzy accoutrements of surf rock and gauzy filters accompanying Pulp‘s Vincent Vega (John Travolta) as he injects his Choco from the Hartz Mountains of Germany, freshly bought from his friendly neighborhood dealer. While everyone was trying to ride Tarantino’s wave of cool, Boyle raised a stiff middle finger to it by detailing, often in graphic form, the horrors of heroin addiction.

Our first onscreen introduction to Mark Renton shows him and his friend Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) furiously running away from two men in suits, with stolen goods falling out of Mark and Spud’s pockets. Looking forward in the film, this introduction seems farcically comedic compared to what lies ahead for Mark, Spud, and their friends Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), and Tommy MacKenzie (Kevin McKidd). The lives of these five men – and the people who love them – will be irreversibly damaged due to heroin and its effects, to destitute and fatal ends.

Addicts Mark, Spud, and Sick Boy are often seen in the first half of the film to be either shooting up, riding a high, disappointing their loved ones, or participating in thievery (petty, grand, and violent) to obtain their drugs. Begbie and Tommy ride shotgun alongside them, two non-addicts with diametrically opposite personalities. Tommy’s a ladies’ man and an athletic type whose first line in the film glibly foreshadows his eventual 180° turn: “It’s a waste of your life, Mark, poisoning your body wi’ tha’ shite.” Begbie (alternately known as “Franco” or “Beggar”) is likewise addicted, but not to drugs; he’d rather take on a barroom full of drunk men ready to fight, flick-knife at the ready in case he doesn’t feel like using his fists. “Beggar’s a fucking psycho, man… but he’s a mate, so what can you do?” Tommy opines after describing the latest of Begbie’s violent, bullying conquests.

The addicts’ personalities, although muddled by heroin use, still stand out strongly throughout the film. Mark is the middle-of-the-road kinda guy, never raising his fists, but never letting anyone walk over him. In serving as the focal character of Trainspotting, his is the journey we’re rooted in, and it is he who we are rooting for to beat his addiction and get away from the nightmare that is his hometown of Edinburgh. It’s Spud who seems to be the punching bag, enduring all manner of humiliation during his time with his friends; from waking up in a puddle of drug- and drink-fuelled excrement, to serving jail time for theft, to getting brutally slashed in a bar fight, Spud represents the loneliness of addiction – or, rather, the loneliness one tries to escape with addiction.

But Sick Boy? He’s a man with a plan and a smart word to say for every occasion; he always seems to get what or who he wants, and he uses that skill to put himself in the position to pull off the film’s climactic drug deal. Throughout Trainspotting he’s seen as the funny one, often comically dressing down Sean Connery’s career as an actor and as James Bond. However, a pivotal event in the middle of the film takes this side of Sick Boy away from us and replaces it with a utilitarian, slimy, weaselly version of himself, reinventing “himself as a pimp and a pusher,” Mark drily intones when Sick Boy reappears after Mark gets sober.

John Hodge’s screenplay melds their lives inextricably as a family, considering the families they’re born into don’t figure much in the early goings. We only see Mark’s parents as having any kind of effect on him after a life-threatening overdose, while Spud’s mother is the only other parental figure we see having any active role in the whole film. This ratty group of addicts and nutters is its own family, no matter how screwed up each member of it might be.

Trainspotting is a rather polarizing, affecting film; personally, I believe sharing this movie with a very religious friend of mine in 1997 marked the beginning of a slowly-developing rift which would grow to cavernous proportions. He couldn’t understand how I could view such a film as art, how I could see the greatness in what he thought was “trash.” For years after, he would bring this up among our circle of friends or at parties as a point of contention, as if to shame me for liking such a movie. I remember walking out of the theater at film’s end and the utter shock on his face at what he’d just seen; “Why did you bring me to this movie?” he asked. Why, indeed? What did I see that he didn’t?

That it went against the rules is exactly what I enjoyed about Trainspotting; it’s not a conventional film by any stretch of the imagination. The photography, the acting, the soundtrack, the editing – all of it was vital to the film’s storytelling, with the music almost becoming as much a character as the actors, not just adornments or “Wouldn’t it be cool if we put this song HERE” afterthoughts. The soundtrack – for which no symphonic score was written – provides the film’s heartbeat, taking turns at blasting us with “Lust for Life”‘s insistent kick drums, insinuating itself like a snake into the proceedings with the grooving “2:1″ by Elastica, or soothing us with a very appropriate use of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

Boyle and cinematographer Brian Tufano’s choices keep you squarely in Mark’s headspace. It’s not the slam-bang kind of photography found in Michael Bay’s The Rock, also released in 1996. He shows you not only what’s happening to and around Mark, but he also shows you what’s happening inside him. Fans of the film point to the “coffin box” scene as the film’s mightiest example of Boyle’s storytelling charisma; we see Mark physically sink into the floor after a powerful heroin dose, with his resulting point of view for the proceeding events being shown through a vertical rectangular opening in the screen. Tufano and Boyle take care to highlight Mark’s sickness (during his two attempts to kick heroin) through frame-distorting fisheye lenses, smashing close-ups, and practical on-set trickery which makes you feel the kind of hell Mark is going through.

It’s a hell of his own making, and Boyle isn’t afraid to push you to your limits when showing you the utter disregard for societal rules or norms. For instance: Irvine Welsh’s novel contains a chapter concerning Mark having to fish for his opium suppositories in what’s called “The Worst Toilet In Scotland.” The reason it’s in there is to show how far gone in his addiction he is; so desperate is he for a fix that he’ll be on his hands and knees in an excrement- and vomit-filled bathroom stall. Boyle brings this scene to cinematic life in the most vivid of ways, not sparing any of your feelings while we see Mark in this degenerated state. However, Boyle goes a little further than that to bring a bit of comedy to this horrid depiction in having Mark actually go into the toilet. The soundtrack transitions from “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen to Brian Eno’s swirling “Deep Blue Day” as Mark swims through crystal-blue waters and avoids sea mines (a figurative representation I’m chuckling about as I write) in order to find these pearl-white treasures.

Admittedly, this scene can turn stomachs (largely thanks to Tracey Gallacher’s appropriately heinous art direction and Penny Crawford’s cringe-inducing set dressing), but it’s darkly funny when considering the absurdity of the scene itself and the circumstances which drive us there. There’s a lot of absurdity and exaggeration in Trainspotting, but it never overshadows the seriousness of its subject matter. Addiction’s grasp doesn’t let anyone go, and the film arrests us with shocking portrayals of its effects. The specters of HIV, neglect, and criminal behavior appear figuratively and literally kill their victims with a vengeance not seen in many films.

Trainspotting is a film of trade-offs. Hope, pain, darkness, light – all of these are to be found in the film, but not without paying the price. It’s even a part of Mark’s opening narration: “When you’re off junk, you suddenly have to worry about all sorts of other shite. Got no money; can’t get pished. Got money; drinking too much. Can’t get a bird; no chance of a ride. Got a bird; too much hassle.” Mark’s living for his fix, but the rest of life – “bills, food, some football team that never fucking wins, human relationships” among other staples of good existence – are passing him by. His lustful want for the beautiful Diane (Kelly Macdonald) is fulfilled, but with a stunning caveat revealed the morning after their torrid tryst. And most damning of all, his want to start a better life comes at the expense of his friends and family, all of whom he loses irrevocably at film’s end.

Similarly, Sick Boy can only become the schemer he wants to be after the worst has happened to him. Even though Spud is everyone’s punching bag, he turns out all right in the end but has to suffer jail time and physical injury to get there. Tommy gets the worst of it; after being addicted to sex with his girlfriend, he has to find another addiction after she dumps him, winding up with a needle in his arm and having his once-furnished apartment turn to fetid squalor. Begbie skates through most of the film with his braggadocio, only to be undone by his own temper.

And that’s all Trainspotting really is – people looking for happiness, whether it’s from “the intravenous injection of hard drugs,” sex, violence, or just pain-free existence. There’s hope amid the no-hopers found strung out and strewn on the floor of the local dealer’s flat, even though getting to that happiness takes us down dark corridors and alleys we could never hope to see. On February 23, 1996, a film was released which showed us those corridors and alleys, all being pathways through a mind blurred by heroin use. Trainspotting shows us at our drug-addled worst and one’s desperate claw into the light. Sublimely artistic and electrifying in every way, Trainspotting pulls no punches and spares nothing in its ferocity.

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One Response to Essay: Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996)

  1. […] with Danny Boyle, a director whose 1996 film Trainspotting changed the way I looked at movies. (For my personal take on Trainspotting, click here.) When I heard Danny Boyle and the cast of Trainspotting were coming back for T2 Trainspotting, a […]

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