by Elizabeth EstenYou don’t need spectacle or a ginormous budget to make a film powerful or game-changing. All of my favorite films do more with so much less than many of the epics I’ve seen. I have always personally preferred smaller character studies like 2007’s Waitress over something like Ben-Hur or even The Godfather. This style of storytelling has been reflected in many independent features, especially those of the 1990’s. It’s been said that these types of movies are all the same, but there are numerous films that transcend this classification. Shot over seven and a half weeks on a budget of just over a million pounds, Trainspotting stands out in several ways.
Loosely based on the 1993 Irvine Welsh novel of the same name, Trainspotting tells the story of Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), a young Scottish man who is also addicted to heroin. With the help of his buddies Spud (Ewan Bremner), Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller), Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and Tommy (Kevin McKidd), Renton goes on a journey to learn about himself and, potentially, how to become a better man.
The story’s simplicity is one of the brightest aspects of the film for me. In a way, it has shades of Inside Llewyn Davis, with its looser structure that allows the film to be about its characters and if they will change for the better and conquer their addictions. Unlike many modern indie films (such as Affluenza and I Am Not a Hipster), the film never drags because the characters are compelling, interesting and real enough to carry your attention for the whole run time — especially our protagonist.
On the surface, Mark Renton is a selfish, unrepentant asshole who doesn’t care for others. All he needs is his heroin and some booze to live a good life. He refuses to accept what society deems as acceptable and consistently ignores criticism from everyone, including his parents. But there is so much more to him beneath the “average Scottish junkie” surface. Renton finds comfort in addiction and manipulates his “friends” for his own entertainment. At best, he only tolerates his friends (during a scene in the park with Sick Boy, Renton clearly hates him for getting off drugs the same time as him just to prove he could do it). Renton also ruins Spud’s chance at getting a job and improving his life by getting him high on cocaine beforehand.
At first we see these actions as a reflection of who Renton truly is, but as the film progresses, the audience begins to understand that his despicable actions are more of a coping mechanism for what he sees as a lousy lot in life. Once he improves his life by quitting cold turkey, moving to London and getting a job, he discovers that maybe conforming to society’s expectations of the average bloke has some benefits. But it’s only in the reemergence of his old life (in the form of a drug deal with his old buddies) that he finally realizes the toxicity of those habits and runs away to begin again, even considering starting a family and purchasing “a fucking big television.” But does he mean it, though? Mark Renton is a rebel but in his own weird little way, he has a cause. Is this reaction merely just a different way for him to rebel and not follow society’s expectations of the average junkie?What I love most about Renton is that when the story ends, he remains an absolute dick. He redeems himself in a few aspects, but he’s still a selfish jerk overall. When he tells the audience about his grand plans, the shot becomes very out of focus. Does he mean what he’s saying or is this just another trick to get people off his back? Renton also doesn’t really change in the end. He does his own thing and doesn’t need your opinions to back him up.
In addition to its excellent protagonist, the supporting characters of Trainspotting are just as compelling. Jonny Lee Miller’s Sick Boy has loads of personality, with his predilection for ’60s era Bond movies and his unifying theory of life. The character eventually becomes quite complex and tragic, especially after the death of someone he dearly loves. Spud, the most sympathetic of the bunch, may suffer the most, but he remains close with his fellow addicts and continues to see something good in each of them even when nothing of the sort is present in the first place. His relationship with Renton is one of the strongest aspects of the story. Robert Carlyle’s Begbie is full of intrigue and while Kelly Macdonald’s Diane may be manipulative in some of her actions, especially at the inception of her relationship with Renton, she clearly cares for Renton and wants to see him improve his life. All of these characters are brilliantly portrayed across the board, no matter the scale of the role.
A persistent trope in drug movies is the negative effects of drugs and the pain the characters feel. My issue with this trope is the lack of justification for why these characters are taking drugs in the first place. Chalking it up to pure long term dependency doesn’t explain why these people constantly hurt themselves just to feel something. The real question in my mind is this: “What are the positives of this lifestyle?” Trainspotting goes against the classic trope, instead showing both sides of the coin and answering that question clearly from the outset: Because it makes them feel good. Renton and his crew realize the negative side effects and are lectured by friends and family about the horrible aspects of heroin, but they couldn’t care less. At the same time, the film shows the destructive nature of drug addiction and never shies away from the tragedy and loss that can come about. The scene that best illustrates this dynamic is the infamous bathroom scene. While the outside is dark, grim and repulsive, once Renton dives into the toilet, he experiences something beyond his wildest dreams, a sense of holiness. The outside of the toilet is society’s view of junkies, while the inside is how junkies see their lifestyle, a hidden blessing.
The story dives into darker elements, but that doesn’t mean that Boyle doesn’t find any humor in the source material. I have to confess that I have yet to see Requiem for a Dream, but there is a good reason for that. From what I can gather from trailers, clips and word of mouth, the movie is a huge downer. For many, this is the typical drug movie, which doesn’t sit right with me when we have Trainspotting to look at. The humor of the film is what keeps it fresh after all these years. The darker moments (the death of Baby Dawn and Renton’s overdose) are permitted to be dark, but Boyle makes sure to mix in scenes like Spud’s job interview or Renton and Sick Boy shooting in the park. These scenes are lighter in tone and contain some of the film’s most memorable lines. They also contain great character moments, the best being the discussion of Sick Boy’s unifying theory of life (“Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever”).Boyle expresses the two opposing perspectives of the drug world through the film’s imagery, too. One of the recurring themes in Trainspotting’s visual language is the “major high” contrasted with the “major comedown.” Take the club scene, for example (which I believe has the greatest use of subtitles in film history). All of the boys pursue sex to varying degrees of success. Renton gets laid for the first time in a while, Tommy and his girlfriend Lizzy continue to be lovey-dovey and Spud passes out before his sex drought can end. But the comedown is shown to be exponentially worse than the great high. Renton finds out that Diane, the girl he slept with, is underage. Spud has a deeply unfortunate action (don’t ask). Tommy and Lizzy discover that their sex tape (which Renton stole earlier in the film) is missing and they break up as a result. The highs may be amazing and mindblowing, but is it worth the downfall afterwards? The contrast can be seen in the presentation of this series of moments. While the high is edited with quick cuts underscored by energetic music and bright colors peppered throughout, the comedown is a much more solemn affair, with the editing slowed down and a darker, grayer color pallette.
I’ve found in my years of movie-watching that I have a real weakness for film soundtracks filled with classic rock tunes (I was essentially raised on the School of Rock soundtrack). Trainspotting fits this mold perfectly, and it is exceptional in so many ways. With songs from British rock legend Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and Lou Reed, these songs help establish the time period of the film without ever having to incorporate it into the dialogue. The music is also there to punctuate some of the film’s best moments, such as the opening scene with Iggy Pop’s classic “Lust for Life,” and Renton’s overdose scored with Lou Reed’s somber yet hopeful “Perfect Day.” The soundtrack expresses how the boys see heroin addiction almost like a rockstar lifestyle — they’re untouchable to the world around them and don’t give a damn what people think.
The independent side of the film industry, to me at least, is the most eclectic and innovative part of cinema. Trainspotting is a major component of why I feel this way. Hollywood films rely on genre conventions to appeal to everyone and they often end up only being tolerated by the mass public. Indie movies go off the beaten path and tell stories about real characters not because of profitability, but because there was a good tale to tell. That’s what film is to me, stories about people struggling and overcoming it in their own unique ways. Trainspotting is not just a movie about heroin addiction, it’s about human nature.
5 out of 5 stars