If Trainspotting is, as some have claimed, an irresponsible advertisement for heroin use, the Smack Council had better start looking for a new agency. Despite its raves for the rush — ”Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by a thousand, and you’re still nowhere near it,” effuses narrator Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) — Trainspotting ultimately depicts the disastrous consequences of addiction with unsparing irony. Disconcertingly free of moral outrage but illustratively down on dope, Trainspotting is a potently unglamorous shot in the arm of junk cinema, an ugly little genre that can easily be tracked on video.

Director Otto Preminger and Frank Sinatra famously broke the taboo more than 40 years ago, entering the abyss of drug addiction with The Man With the Golden Arm. Set to Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy noir score, the right-minded tale was courageous for its time, but now it just looks overheated and quaint. Reformed junkie and poker dealer Frankie Machine (Sinatra) returns from prison with big dreams of going straight as, of all things, a drummer. But no amount of good intentions can keep him from the devilish temptations of a pusher (Darren McGavin). At this melodrama’s lurid peak, Frankie goes cold turkey, politely entreating the valiant Molly (Kim Novak), ”If you love me, kill me, please.”

By the ’70s, heroin had become such a well-known social disease that America was ready for a tougher, more contemporary view. With a script by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, The Panic in Needle Park graphically depicts street-level addiction as a one-way ticket down. Compelling, unflattering performances by its stars rivet this grim romance between a cocky New York grifter (Al Pacino) and the mild-mannered Midwesterner (Kitty Winn) he corrupts. Tagging along on the couple’s aimless parade of scores, hits, crimes, and arrests, the film occasionally takes on the appearance of cinema verite, and video amplifies the impression of TV-news reality.

A generation later, Drugstore Cowboy removed the sensationalism and raised the stakes. Discarding Needle Park‘s oh-my observations, Cowboy treats the lifestyle of ”shameless full-time dope fiends” as stable and nearly viable. Going so far as to feature doper novelist William S. Burroughs as a wizened junkie ex-priest decrying the ”demonization” of narcotics, maverick director Gus Van Sant (To Die For) cozies up to Bob and Dianne Hughes (Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch), happy-go-lucky ringleaders who rob pharmacies and get high on the swag. Rich with pharmacological detail, weird drama, and such droll insights as ”[junkies need] something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life…like having to tie their shoes,” this disarming and bittersweet movie doesn’t judge its characters but treats the consequences of their actions as a natural payoff of their drug thefts. When Bob cleans up only to meet another fate entirely, he takes it in stride, just like a cowboy.

The fainthearted may prefer London Kills Me, a drug movie that hardly touches the stuff. In a flimsy directorial debut that preceded Trainspotting‘s look at the heroin haze of British youth culture, screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) doesn’t trouble his pitiful posse of small-time dealers and squatters with much evidence of their chemical dependency. In fact, lead loser Clint (Justin Chadwick) expends far more effort trying to steal shoes for a job interview than he does feeding his supposed habit. As one addict grumbles: ”Druggies are boring, small-minded, stupid. The people are enough to put you off taking the stuff.” If Kureishi disagreed, he might have made a more substantial movie.

Which is exactly the source of Trainspotting‘s devastating impact. Adapted from Irvine Welsh’s bleakly funny episodic novel, the movie likes its nihilists: Scottish drug buddies Renton, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Spud (Ewen Bremner), plus their vicious alcoholic mate Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and the ill-fated Tommy (Kevin McKidd). Between fixes and capers, they talk up a slang-happy storm, debating James Bond movies, analyzing their habits, chatting up underage girls. A deliriously profane spew of sex, ODs, and videotape, Trainspotting leavens the stomach-turning scatology and violence with a savvy soundtrack and surreal invention.

Vibrant and colorful, the film abstains from sermonizing to tug at the conundrum of voluntary self-annihilation. In a voice-over during the boisterous opening scene — a foot race with police through Edinburgh streets, set to the thumping urge of Iggy Pop’s ”Lust for Life” — Renton articulates the paradox. ”Choose life,” he proposes, in one of the cast’s most easily understood accents, the comprehensibility of which improves with rewinding. ”Why would I want to do a thing like that?” In their explorations of drugs and the people who love them, these videos all provide clues to that deadly riddle.
Trainspotting: A-
The Man With the Golden Arm: B-
The Panic in Needle Park: B+
Drugstore Cowboy: B+
London Kills Me: C-

Drugstore Cowboy
  • Movie
  • Gus Van Sant