Trainspotting (United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Next to Independence Day, Trainspotting may be the most hyped motion picture of the summer. Miramax Films, the distributor that saturated the market with ads for The Crying Game in 1992- 93 and Pulp Fiction in '94, has struck again. Trainspotting, which is based on Irvine Welsh's cult novel and is directed by Shallow Grave helmsman Danny Boyle, became a smash hit in the UK during its run there. Miramax, hoping for a similar reaction on this side of the Atlantic, has been shouting from the rooftops, using big, splashy print ads and chaotic TV and theatrical spots to lure in their target audience. The danger is, of course, that Trainspotting's substance will get drowned by the marketing.

"I chose not to choose life. I chose to choose something else," says the film's narrator and main character, a twenty-something Edinburgh man named Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), near the outset of Trainspotting. In rejecting the yuppie culture of a nuclear family, material possessions, a paying job, and dental insurance, Renton is rebelling, but this isn't just the usual disaffection of youth -- it's a deeper, more pervasive dissatisfaction with a culture he views as sick and stifling.

Renton's escape is through drugs -- primarily heroin, but really anything he can get his hands on. He's surrounded by his "buddies", a group of crooks, liars, and psychos who are even more twisted than he is. There's Spud (Ewan Bremner), a shy, inoffensive junkie; Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), a vicious, duplicitous con artist who's obsessed with Sean Connery; Tommy (Kevin McKidd), a "virtuous" young man fighting the temptation of heroin; and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a nutcase who gets his thrills from beating up people.

Trainspotting is careful not to present a one-sided view of drug use. After all, why would anyone use the stuff if all it leads to is misery and unhappiness? In Renton's words, to get an idea of what it's like using heroin, "Take the best orgasm you've ever had, multiply by 1000, and you're still nowhere near it." There are no worries about the problems and concerns of everyday life, just where the next hit is going to come from. The giddiness of heroin addiction is well-illustrated during some of the film's early scenes, but it's a euphoria that gives way to tragedy.

In the end, Trainspotting has an anti-drug message, but it presents its case through character studies, not preaching. There are a lot of gruesome images, some of which are presented in an oddly humorous context. For example, take Renton's headfirst dive into the "worst toilet in Scotland" or Spud's reaction when he wakes up in soiled sheets. In portraying the cycle of addiction -- using drugs, trying to get clean, then giving in again -- Trainspotting recalls Drugstore Cowboy and The Basketball Diaries. Boyle's style, however, is distinctly his own. This is a kinetic movie, where everything, including the camera, keeps moving. This isn't an examination of the Scottish drug culture from the outside looking in, it's one from the inside looking out.

For one hour, Trainspotting is as compelling as any motion picture to be released this year. It's exciting, energetic, thought-provoking, and never lets up. Unfortunately, during the film's last third, the focus starts to shift, and, in doing so, it blurs. Suddenly, after battling addiction for sixty minutes, Renton and his friends become Scotland's answer to Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs -- a group of inept thieves committing the "dodgiest scam" in a lifetime of petty crimes. There's mistrust, betrayal, and bloodshed. But, while this material has some appeal, it's debatable whether it belongs here. For a segment like this to really work, it needs more time and attention than Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge are able to give it. As such, the subplot seems almost like an afterthought, taking the film away from its darker, more compelling material and opening the door to a hopeful, if ironic, ending.

The overlong epilogue aside, Trainspotting is one of the summer's most arresting motion pictures, and not just because of the offbeat visual style. There's nothing new or unique about the story, but it is presented in a manner that reinforces its immediacy and impact. The film makers were determined to make this a street-level view of addiction, not some "voyeuristic Oxbridge graduate's perception of these people". In that goal, they have succeeded, and, while Trainspotting is not without its faults, it offers a powerful portrait that all of Miramax's overhyping cannot diminish.

Trainspotting (United Kingdom, 1995)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Drugs, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1