Trainspotting (1996)

Danny Boyle | 1hr 34min

There is a bitter contempt that burns through Trainspotting’s opening narration, moving with such repetitive vigour that it takes us a second to catch up to its derisive ridicule of middle-class Britain’s comfortable, monotonous lifestyles.

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family, choose a big fucking television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.”

There is no waiting around for any opening credits or title cards here. In the very first seconds, we meet heroin addict Mark Renton on the run from security guards, spitting scorn at the pre-set pathways for conventional, material lives that have been drilled into his head from childhood, and which he and his friends now disdainfully reject. Ewan McGregor’s thick Scottish accent and heavy slang are steeped in the socioeconomic implications of lower-class living, and Renton isn’t one to keep quiet either. This voiceover runs all through Trainspotting like the first-person narrator of a novel, which shouldn’t be surprising given its literary source material. In this way, Renton is written like a more realistic variation of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, typifying a specific offbeat subculture of antisocial delinquents relishing freedom and spurning anything vaguely mainstream.

One of the great in media res movie openings, whisking the camera along with Renton and his friends as they run from security, and his cynical voiceover burns over the top.
Ewan McGregor gives one of the best performances of 1996, at times moving at 100 miles per hour and then pulling it all right back in moments of bleak despair and sobriety.

And like Stanley Kubrick’s own disturbingly uncompromising aesthetic, Danny Boyle does not hold back from indulging in his own audacious style to match Renton’s edgy manner, interrupting brisk camera movements around his characters with erratic freeze frames, and flashing their names up onscreen as introductions. Sick Boy, Spud, and Mother Superior are his mates, while Tommy and Begbie, an aggressive alcoholic, hang on the outskirts of the circle, abstaining from illegal drugs. “No way would I poison my body with that shite,” the latter declares with a Scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Boyle’s humour is often amusingly dark, and this talented cast of young British actors capably deliver it with a sting of irony, recognising the inherent comedy in the reckless overconfidence of these wild, young men.

Freeze frames punctuating Boyle’s brisk pacing, jumping out of its flow as characters are introduced.
Though the editing and camera movements may be Trainspotting’s primary strengths, Boyle still finds the time to insert these wide shots of his characters against gorgeous backdrops, grounding them in the rundown urban setting.

The string of vignettes that lead this small ensemble through petty crimes, surreal trips, and devastating deaths may offer Trainspotting a loose formal structure that complements the drifting uncertainty of its characters, but it is in Renton’s troubled rehabilitation that it develops a more sincere forward momentum. The carnal temptation of one lifestyle versus the clear-minded stability of the other is a constant battle for him, and Boyle’s frantic editing often cuts right to the agitated centre of it, amplifying each injection and simmering solution with brief sound effects and close-ups not unlike the rapid drug montages of Requiem for a Dream, sensitising us to their immediate physical effects. Match cuts eagerly whip us between scenes in peppy transitions, impatiently leaping forward in time towards the next big hit or escapade, and in one scene that sees Renton, Spud, and Tommy each go home with a woman at a club, Boyle efficiently intercuts between each sexual encounter back home. While Spud daftly falls asleep before even taking off his clothes, Tommy and his girlfriend panic that their sex tape has disappeared, making Renton the only one to successfully bed a woman, Diane – only to disturbingly discover the next morning that she is underage.

Transitions driven by the movements of his actors – a fall at the end of one scene turns into Renton landing on the ground at the start of the next.

To an extent, the kinetic pacing and intoxicating highs of Trainspotting are simply distractions from the crushing despair that lies just outside its bubble of energetic thrills. Perhaps more than anyone else, Renton holds the most self-awareness of where he stands in relation to this divide between reality and mind-altering distortions of it. More specifically, he recognises the cultural forces that drive him to occupy this lowly place in society, where such diversions are necessary to avoid living with the shame of his own identity.

“It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low! The scum of the fucking earth, the most miserable, wretched, servile pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation.”

By pulling us between such extremes of tragic realism and light surrealism, Boyle tempts us to look away from Trainspotting’s more harrowing scenes, such as that in which Sick Boy and his girlfriend, Allison, discover their baby has died in its cot due to negligence. Rather than pushing them to reconsider their lifestyles though, it has the opposite effect, as Allison joins Renton in his next high to dull the trauma. In contrast, another drug-induced dream early in the film hazily slips from the extreme decrepitude of the “worst toilet in Scotland” into a blissful underwater fantasy, revealing the full power of these substances in putting a shine on even the vilest circumstances.

Literally submerging us into surreal interludes, challenging the realism of the setting with the detachment of Renton’s mind under the influence.

Bit by bit though, Boyle turns Renton’s hallucinations against him, sinking him into a grave-shaped hole in the carpet during a particularly bad trip, and eventually pushing him into a full-blown nightmare when his parents lock him in his childhood bedroom and force him off drugs cold turkey. As McGregor writhes in agony, the dimensions of his wallpapered room stretch and compress, and Boyle presses his wide-angle lens right up against his face in distorted close-ups. In the background we can hear dance music pounding to the illusory manifestations of his most shameful insecurities, as Diane sings to him, his friends taunt him, and up on the ceiling Sick Boy’s deceased baby crawls and spins its head like the demon from The Exorcist.

Wide angle lens distorting Renton’s face in close-ups and the dimensions of his childhood bedroom, as we disappear into the darkest hallucination yet.

Even once Renton is sober, Boyle’s editing finds a new language to express this strange shift in momentum, centring the reformed addict in a bar that moves around him in a time-lapse while he sits motionless, far from the dynamic, erratic force he previously personified. The journey to this new sort of freedom does not come easily, as old friends return and tempt him back to his abandoned life, but grounding him in his renewed purpose is also a recognition of their inherent selfishness, holding him back from becoming a version of himself he might actually like.

A sober Renton has all the energy sucked out of him, as he sits inert in a bar that moves in a time-lapse around him.

From the inside of a locker lined with mirrors that multiply his face across the screen, his future looks prosperous, and later the camera is tipped completely off its axis as he leaves the world of drugs and delinquency for the last time. For all of its fast pacing and vigour, Boyle still finds the right moments to inject Trainspotting with a dose of striking visual beauty in his blocking and backdrops, underscoring Renton’s search for health, stability, and self-assurance with a rousing wonder that makes all of life’s trials worth the pain.

A brilliant composition as Renton finally starts to get his life together, filling the frame with reflections of his face.
Boy tips his camera to the ground on its side as Renton enters a new world – a hopeful future, even if it is still a little scary.

Trainspotting is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

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