Directed by: Danny Boyle.
Written by: John Hodge based on the novel by Irvine Welsh.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), Kevin McKidd (Tommy), Robert Carlyle (Begbie), Kelly Macdonald (Diane), Peter Mullan (Swanney), James Cosmo (Mr. Renton), Eileen Nicholas (Mrs. Renton), Susan Vidler (Allison), Pauline Lynch (Lizzy), Shirley Henderson (Gail), Stuart McQuarrie (Gavin / US Tourist), Irvine Welsh (Mikey Forrester).
It can be a strange experience going back and revisiting a movie you loved as a teenager for the first time in years as an adult. Such is the case I had recently watching Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting – in preparation for the sequel out this month – a film that came out when I was 15 years old, and that I probably watched at least 5 times before I graduated from high school in 2000 – and then, I don’t think I’ve seen the film since. It’s interesting to see the film now for all these years later for several reasons. One is that while the cast was largely unknown at the time, almost all of the major roles were filled by actors, who if they didn’t become huge stars, at least became well known working actors. Another is to see, in a rawer form, the same sort of direction that Danny Boyle would refine through the years- culminating 12 years later with Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – a film that uses the same kind of tricks that Trainspotting does to try and energize the audience. The difference is that in 1996, that felt new and exciting (at least to the novice cinephile I was at the time), and by 2008, it felt like a safe choice. Finally, watching a film like Trainspotting as an adult really does let you know, rather quickly, how much you’ve aged. I remembered the film as a drug film about how fun it was to do drugs – right up until the time it isn’t fun anymore, and you need to stop or die. What surprised me on this viewing is how quickly things really do turn dark in Trainspotting – we’re barely a half hour in when Baby Dawn dies – and Renton (Ewan McGregor) removes all doubt about what an absolute shit he is – going immediately to fix himself another dose of heroin – and while he’s “thoughtful” enough to prepare one for Baby Dawn’s mother as well – he notes that, of course, she got hers after he got his. Viewing the film as an adult, I don’t see it so much as about freedom – as I did when I was a teenager – but about a group of selfish assholes. Oddly though, that doesn’t make me like the film any less.
There is a rawness and energy about Trainspotting from its opening sequence – when Renton, Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremmer) are all running from the cops (set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life – one of the many great songs that made the soundtrack one of the best of the 1990s). Renton gets bumped by a car – and immediately pops back up again – but instead of running, just looks at the driver and laughs – right before he’s tackled. The movie then flashes backward, not to the beginning of Renton’s story, but just the part he chooses to begin with (whatever made him – or anyone – start heroin is never mentioned – except for poor, dumb Tommy). Renton informs us – in voiceover – that this time, he’s going to quit the junk for sure – and informs us how exactly he’s going to go ahead and do that. It works – but only for a bit. He’ll be back on it again soon, perhaps because whether he’s stoned or not, he ends up doing the same thing – hanging out with his idiot friends, drinking, going to bars, and not working. IF he’s on heroin, he’s got no sex drive – but when he’s off, and he does meet a girl (Kelly McDonald) – and goes home with her, it turns out she’s s high school student.
Renton drifts on and off drugs throughout the film, and as our narrator, he certainly does maintain a certain degree of our sympathy. But he isn’t wholly honest with the audience either – or perhaps, he thinks he is, and isn’t being honest with himself. Aside than Baby Dawn, the other death in the film is that of Tommy (Kevin McKidd) – and while Renton never even hints at any guilty feelings towards Tommy’s death – he clearly set it in motion not once, but twice – first by stealing the sex tape Tommy and his girlfriend made together – and whose absence causes his girlfriend to leave Tommy, and sink into depression, and second by hooking him up with heroin for the first time because of that depression. But if Renton is an asshole, we continue to like him in part because Sick Boy and especially Begbie (Robert Carlyle) – a psychopath who picks fights with any and every one – are even worse. The last third of the movie is the only part with anything resembling a real plot – as Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud – all go in on a big drug deal, although watching the film again, I was surprised by just how little this “big score” really was.
Trainspotting ended up becoming one of the quintessential examples of ‘90s movies – a film that became a huge cult hit on VHS, and whose posters adorned quite a few dorm rooms over the years. Like many films of that time, its debt to Scorsese is obvious – particularly GoodFellas, which had just come out 6 years earlier. But Boyle – making just his second film (following 1994’s Shallow Grave) amped up the energy even more. He is aided a great deal by his cast – especially McGregor, who seemed to be DeNiro to Boyle’s Scorsese for a while, until a falling out over The Beach (2000) led them not to work together until the upcoming T2: Trainspotting sequel. That’s a shame, because as good of an actor as McGregor is, he’s rarely been as good as he was here – he’s slimmer than normal here, angrier, with more than a little danger to him. He has the swagger necessary to pull this film off.
Of course, as with many things in Hollywood, what once seemed dangerous and edgy has now fully become part of the system – especially perhaps Boyle and McGregor, neither of whom you would describe that way now. But it felt that way in 1996 – and looking back at the film now, knowing where everyone would end up, I can still see that raw energy that made it so exciting to me then – even if I see the emptiness in the characters more now than I did then. There are some films that are timeless classics – beloved by all, that are universal in nature, and will remain classics long after everyone involved them – even as their initial audience – has come and gone. And then there are films that are tied to a specific time and place, and whose impact is harder to see for younger generations. I think Trainspotting is the later – and I don’t really mean that as an insult.