Trainspotting (1996)

Dir. Danny Boyle. Starring Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner

I’m not a drug user, nor have I ever been. Movies about drug use overwhelmingly bore me, I guess, because I have no point of reference. I’ve ignored Trainspotting for many years largely because I couldn’t imagine finding a movie about heroin addicts interesting, and partly because the people who sing its praises are usually the same dweebs pushing up Fight Club. What we get instead is something that’s moving and memorable, navigating a course between “This is why someone would get into heroin in the first place” and “This is why people shouldn’t do heroin.” It is, Rent (McGregor) tells us, more than a thousand times better than the best orgasm one could ever have. It also makes you hallucinate utter madness should you ever be taken off the stuff entirely, and when you’re on it you find yourself doing things you know you really don’t want to do. Rent dives into the “worst toilet in Scotland.” Tommy (Kevin McKidd), a latecomer to the world of skag and comparatively innocent to his more experienced friends, dies after contracting HIV from a shared needle. (This after a prank Rent pulls on Tommy essentially gets him dumped by his girlfriend, who appears from the fallout to have been a stabilizing force in his life.) Shoplifting gets Rent and Spud (Bremner) in front of a judge and sends the latter to prison. A baby dies in its crib while a houseful of adults are high. Both sides of this coin feel natural, unforced. There are last hits and last hits, Rent narrates at one point. The beginning of the movie shows us such a “last hit,” which is not the same as the other kind, It’s one of the clearest statements of the hopelessness of drug abuse I’ve ever heard in a movie.

Amusingly, the worst person in the film is hooked on more easily accessible drugs. Rent and Spud are, as far as drug addict petty criminals go, pretty harmless. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is clearly a bad person, but the heroin doesn’t appear to have made him that way; he would be a narcissist and small-time crook even in a world without drugs. It’s Begbie (Carlyle), the beer-swilling, chain-smoking, glass throwing maniac who is the scariest and most dangerous man in the film. According to Rent, the rest of them do drugs; “Begbie did people.” He is abrasive, perpetually angry, demanding, and totally without empathy. One doesn’t like to throw the word “sociopath” around, but it’s entirely possible that Begbie would be sociopath-positive. At no point in the movie does he sacrifice for others, or even inconvenience himself for others. One gets the sense that it’s his idea to use Rent’s money, hard-earned and legally obtained, for a job that will benefit him less than it risks Rent. Yet Rent goes ahead with it anyway, unable to throw off Begbie’s gripping will, and endangering himself needlessly after more or less going straight. On top of that, the film’s hardest moments to watch are entirely Begbie’s. In both, a glass mug becomes a weapon, although in the first case it seems more indicative of Begbie’s carelessness than of his malice. He tosses it over the balcony and, it turns out, into the face of a woman sitting at the bar downstairs. The second is pure aggression; a man walks into him while Begbie is carrying some beer, the beer spills, and Begbie goes into action. The man tries to apologize, but it’s a losing battle, as he does not know what Rent and the viewer already know: no apology could suffice. Begbie’s mind is already made up even before the word “accident” comes out, and the results are vile.

Trainspotting reeks of energy, so much so that this stands out even among Danny Boyle movies. Part of that is the manic voiceover of Ewan McGregor, whose inner monologue is a lungful of lists. They start out being a little dull (see his description of his life versus the viewer’s life, the list of drugs he and his mates pinch, etc.) and then become interesting again just from their sheer size, like a windup toy that goes half again further than one expected it would. Rent’s friends aren’t brilliant, even though Sick Boy would disagree, and in choosing Rent as a lens Trainspotting gives us the most insightful one it has. (He’s hardly the only one with good lines. A pair of the gals are talking about their sex lives while their partners do the same in another room. What are you talking about? the girls ask the guys when they meet up again. “Football!” they say, and then ask the ladies what they’ve been chatting about. “Shopping!” the girls reply. It is screaming funny and, in its own way, even a little sad.) The film’s soundtrack has a heavy electro influence, which certainly builds the energy, but that’s also not the only note it has. Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” covers a scene during which Rent appears to OD, is placed into a taxi, and then dumped at the ER. It’s useful more for its deeply melancholy sound than its slightly precious irony, and that exhausted tone is an exact fit for the spaced-out semi-corpse arriving at the hospital. The movie’s use of editing goes without saying, as it bounces hectically wherever it chooses and without warning. As much as anything else, though, the movie isn’t shy about using close-ups for its strong ensemble cast. McGregor is a winner here, but so too is Carlyle, who acts more than everyone else in the movie and perhaps even better, and Bremner, who removes the workings of his brain from his eyes and makes poor Spud more sympathetic.

At ninety-four minutes, Trainspotting is tremendously efficient, and yet I feel like I could have hung around an extra ten or so to develop Diane (Kelly Macdonald) a little further. Our first glimpse of Diane is in a bar in which she disposes of a suitor so viciously and deftly that Rent falls in love on the spot. He should have learned his lesson, but this is a heroin addict, so he follows her out to her taxi, offering to come home with her “but like, I’m not promising anything.” She cuts his legs off as effortlessly as she did to that other sad sot in the bar. “Do you find this usually works?” she sneers. “Or—let me guess—you’ve never tried it before.” It goes on in an increasingly aggressive vein until Rent falls back, only to find that she’s left the door of her taxi open for him and is waiting for him to come in. In the morning, Rent learns that the girl who has so thoroughly concussed him is just that. If you break it off with me, she says, I’ll go to the cops. Later on the two will correspond while Rent’s getting his life together in London, but it serves as a way to catch us up with him and not as a way to get into her head. The movie does not ask why she wants a much older boyfriend, or why she’s even remotely interested in Rent in the first place. One sort of expects that she would have a role in the denouement, but she’s absent from the film from the point where Begbie shows up at Rent’s London flat. If there is more to the girl than meets the eye, or if there is a reason to include her in the movie apart from seeing a topless nineteen-year-old, then I’m ignorant of it.

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