Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose 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 suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on 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, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin? — Mark “Rent Boy” Renton, Trainspotting
I was reading my trusty Lonely Planet guide to Scotland and naturally, gravitated to the section on Scottish arts and culture. In the section on essential Scottish films, Trainspotting popped out as a title I vaguely recognized. Finding it on Netflix Instant Play, I decided to check it out.
Trainspotting was voted the most favorite Scottish film of all time by the British public in a poll by The List and was seen as Britain’s answer to Hollywood when it was released in 1996. It also is considered the 10th best British film of all time by the British Film Institute.
Based on the novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh (who is in a cameo in the film as Mikey Forrester) and directed by Danny Boyle, Trainspotting takes place in an impoverished section of Edinburgh in the economically distressed 80’s (but was primarily filmed in my eventual destination of Glasgow). The movie follows a group of “mates” who live in constrained circumstances, most of them being heroin addicts. Their bitterness at their peripheral place in the United Kingdom in these hard times is perfectly reflected in this rant by Mark “Rent Boy” Renton:
It’s SHITE being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are COLONIZED by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonized BY. We’re ruled by effete assholes. It’s a SHITE state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and ALL the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference!
Trainspotting focuses primarily on Renton, played by a shockingly emaciated and bitter Ewan McGregor, whom I associate with such charming, pretty-boy roles as in Moulin Rouge and Big Fish or heroic, muscular ones like Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. His voice opens the movie musing on how he has not chosen a normal life because he has chosen (or rather become addicted to) the life of a junkie. McGregor’s harsh, deliberately unattractive performance definitely made me consider picking up some of his less slick work.
Trainspotting is not marked by a really linear narrative structure. It’s heavily focused on Renton’s inner life as he struggles to keep clean and choose a life in motion as opposed to the standstill life of his so-called “mates.” In keeping with that perspective, the movie is both sharply funny and queasily ugly in a way that reminds me of the 1999 film Fight Club (I wonder if it was knowingly influenced by Trainspotting).
For the first third of the movie, I had a hard time keeping track of who was who in the fairly sizeable cast (and the movie is definitely androcentric, although a young Kelly Macdonald is memorable due to one hell of a put-down/come-on) and the only character I really empathized with was Renton (partially since the film was almost entirely through his eyes). I do wonder, however, if it was a conscious directorial choice to show how empty and aimless the lives of the cast were. Still, especially after a horrifying event halfway through the movie, the characters become darker, especially Jonny Lee Miller as callous, movie-obsessed Sick Boy, Kevin McKidd as clean, honest jock Tommy whose life goes awry due to a seemingly minor theft by Renton, and Robert Carlyle as the living embodiment of the Violent Glaswegian Begbie. Only dim Spud, played by Ewen Bremner, remains relatively sweet in these horrific circumstances. Still even when bad things happen to the characters, since I didn’t have as much internal access to them as Renton, I sometimes had a difficult time feeling appropriately shocked or haunted by certain events, such as one of the pivotal scenes in the middle regarding the baby Dawn.
The movie is honestly disgusting and yet visually striking. I didn’t realize that surreal images were such a big part of the film, and they are used effectively to show the mental state of Renton. Yet, it never makes heroin addiction look cool; on the contrary, an early, visually brilliant but absolutely vile scene in a toilet and one in the middle involving drug withdrawal and one of the freakiest babies you’ll ever see permanently put me off the idea of ever doing drugs (even if former U.S. Senator Bob Dole thought it encouraged its use). At times, though, I did feel that some of the slick, innovative imagery did put something of a wall between me and the impoverished characters of the movie.
Sound-wise, due to my unfamiliarity with the Scottish accent, I had to put on subtitles, although I did get used to the vulgar musicality of Trainspotting’s language. As for the music, consisting of tracks from pop and punk, the soundtrack perfectly reflects the 80’s milieu and brilliantly enhances the film.
As for the unusual title? “Trainspotting” may be a reference to the injection of heroin, as it moves along the “tracks” or veins. The other may be a reference to a scene in the novel (not included in the film) where Begbie and Renton meet Begbie’s drunk father in a train station when he asks them if they are “trainspottin’,” reflecting overall themes of abandonment and stagnancy.
Despite its flaws, though, the excellent performances, mindbending cinematography, fantastic sountrack, and the harrowing nature of the content make this a film well-worth seeing.