Trainspotting: Read EW's original 1996 review
It would be hard to imagine a movie about drugs, depravity, and all-around bad behavior more electrifying than Trainspotting. A thrillingly squalid, scabrously funny portrait of young punk ne’er-do-wells in Edinburgh, it’s about characters who are tossing away their lives for the sheer reckless hell of it. Broke, unemployed, beyond hope or even apathy, they fill the void any way they can — by stealing, getting sloshed in clubs, firing BB guns at dogs, watching home porn videos, and, mostly, by shooting heroin, a drug they embrace for its luscious zombie highs, with nary a care for its perils. Made by the same team that did the nasty, purplish 1994 thriller Shallow Grave (director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald), Trainspotting transforms this scandalous — sometimes scatological — material into an exuberant black comedy of youthful nihilism. The film may be set in the gutter, but its ironic message is that there’s joy in the gutter. It’s a celebration of appetite in the raw.
Adapted from Irvine Welsh’s hugely popular 1993 cult novel, Trainspotting is already a smash hit in Britain, where a generation of viewers have embraced it as a latter-day Clockwork Orange. Like that movie, or Sid and Nancy (or Pulp Fiction), it offers transgressive kicks served up without apology or judgment — the spectacle of unregenerate thrill junkies high on self-destructive bravado. In the opening shots, a couple of scary-looking young men come racing down a gritty urban boulevard, the scene pounded forward by the rocking party beat of Iggy Pop’s ”Lust for Life.” On the soundtrack, a voice — young, snarly, Scottish — seems caught on a precipice between sarcasm and hunger as it rips into a litany of society’s commands: ”Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f—ing big television. . ..” Watching this scene, we’re not sure what, exactly, these characters are running from (probably jobs, careers, f—ing big televisions), but it all adds up to an image of such jolting freedom that we want to be up there on that screen, right along with them.
Moments later, Renton (Ewan McGregor), gently handsome despite a pre-lobotomy buzz cut, sits in a dank concrete flat, receiving the first of many injections of smack we’ll see him take over the next 94 minutes. As the drug gets sucked into his veins, he lies back on the floor, arms outstretched, like Jesus being lofted into heaven. The camera dollies up to him in a visual duplication of his rush, and he speaks to us in awestruck tones about ”the pleasure of it” — the liquid explosion of a high more transcendent than sex.
In Trainspotting, Danny Boyle works in a fever-dream style derived, in equal measure, from the street operas of Martin Scorsese and the adrenaline aesthetic of music videos. He invites us to stare at the world through jittery sensation-starved eyes. The movie will doubtlessly be accused of glorifying heroin, and, in a sense, it will stand guilty as charged: It’s a brutally honest depiction of the fun of drugs. Yet we’re also presented with a hero who knows, on some level, that he’s in free fall, trashing his life. In a quasi-fantasy episode poised between nausea and farce, Renton goes tumbling into a disgustingly mucky toilet in search of the drugs he’s dropped there. A sick joke? Yes, but also, in its way, a winking vision of hell. It’s the lurching haplessness of Renton’s attempts to go straight — to pull himself out of the muck — that gives Trainspotting its glimmer of soul.
A few of the characters speak in brogues as thick as stout, yet once you get used to the language, their raffish, throwaway street wit is intoxicating. There’s Spud (Ewen Bremner), whose ”conversation” is an ejaculated sputter of caveman witticisms, and the trigger-happy Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), whose obsession with Sean Connery 007 trivia marks him as the most Tarantinoid of the lot. And there’s Begbie (Robert Carlyle), the local sociopath they all hang out with, his drug of choice not heroin but violence. Carlyle, whose mellow good looks make Begbie’s short fuse seem all the more treacherous, gives the scariest barroom-psycho performance in years.
Like Scorsese and Tarantino, Boyle uses pop songs as rhapsodic mood enhancers, though in his own ravey-hypnotic style. Whether he’s staging a fumbly sex montage to Sleeper’s version of ”Atomic” or having Renton go cold turkey to the ominous slow build of Underworld’s ”Dark and Long” (when a dead baby starts crawling along the ceiling, you’ll think you’re on drugs), Trainspotting keeps us wired to the pulse of its characters’ passions. It’s only in the final act, as the gang executes a freak drug deal in London, that it may dawn on you that Renton and Begbie are a variation on Charlie and Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, with the mad-dog Begbie as Renton’s crazed id, the past he can’t seem to shake. In the end, when Renton, maxed out on desperation, puts a stake through that past, hovering over his slumbering enemy, with Underworld’s ”Born Slippy (NUXX)” pulsating like his own telltale heart, it’s one of the great moments in recent movies — rapt, terrifying, cleansing, a vision of just how far some people may have to go to finally choose life. A