Feverishly kinetic, this breakthrough film for director Danny Boyle follows the manic, depressive, defeated, and exultant lives of a handful of young heroin addicts in working-class Scotland. That it’s true to all of those qualities is probably why Trainspotting was initially dismissed in some quarters as a celebration of addiction.
“There was no such thing as society, and even if there was, I most certainly had nothing to do with it.” So says Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the film’s narrator and conflicted soul. Along with Begbie (Robert Carlyle), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Spud (Ewen Bremner), Mark has little purpose in life but to enjoy heroin’s indulgences and suffer its excruciating consequences. When hooked, Mark lives with Mother Superior (Peter Mullan), his burly heroin supplier, but when he is trying to kick the habit, he moves back in amidst the soccer trophies and train-covered wallpaper of his childhood bedroom. These are the movie’s likable, affecting heroes, but they are also the guys who will steal your car radio if it means a quick fix.
Trainspotting is something of a cinematic quick fix itself. Aside from its whimsically named characters, who prattle on about pop-culture matters (Sean Connery is a favorite topic), the movie pulsates with a clubby soundtrack and is littered with raucous, indulgent laughs (including Mark’s surreal dive into Scotland’s filthiest toilet). Boyle’s ostentatious use of the camera includes a riff on the cover of Abbey Road, as well as another shot that might as well be constructed for a rock band photo session: at one point a train pulls away from the station to reveal our heroes standing alone in a distinctly orchestrated pose.
Some thought this was too much fun for what should be a cautionary tale. Yet plenty of movies have been praised for being honest about the downside of drug use. Trainspotting is honest about the bliss. As needle after needle plunges into his skin, Mark is clear about the ecstasy that follows: “Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by a thousand, and you’re still nowhere near it.” Only after a testimony like that can we understand why anyone would willingly suffer the bouts of nausea, diarrhea, paranoia, and depression that follow. Only a complete comprehension of the pleasure allows us to fully grasp the pain.