Films that explicitly revolve around drug use typically fall into one of three categories: Irreverent stoner comedies, score-fueled heist flicks or trauma porn PSAs. Danny Boyle’s second directorial feature, 1996’s Trainspotting, somehow takes these aforementioned elements and distills them into a nuanced and astute depiction of addiction and drug use under capitalism and newfound ‘90s British national pride—all while never falling into cliched finger-wagging territory.
Despite most of the film’s characters engaging in morally reprehensible acts—child negligence, tourist battery and sex with minors among them—none of them are presented as singularly evil for engaging in recreational drug use. Instead, the many avenues that lead to dabbling in illicit substances are examined with sardonic bite and humanistic levity, with the realities of intravenous heroin use being the primary focus. Unlike the majority of films that center around the lives of hard drug addicts—whether it be Requiem for a Dream, Christiane F. or The Basketball Diaries—Trainspotting refuses to assert that a drug-free life is inherently more successful or desirable, particularly when the very fabric of society is inextricable from the superficial nature of living in a consumer-driven culture.
“People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it,” elaborates protagonist and narrator Mark “Rent-boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) on the public misconception concerning heroin and those who use it. “Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. At least, we’re not that fucking stupid.”
Based on Scottish writer Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel (and later stage play) of the same name, Trainspotting follows Renton and his dysfunctional friend group, consisting of fellow heroin users as well as grifters living on the margins. Among them are docile petty thief Spud (Ewen Bremmer, who played Renton in the stage version), Sean Connery-obsessed Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), straight-laced Tommy (Kevin McKidd), violent sociopath Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and, of course, smack dealer “Mother Superior” Swanney (Peter Mullan).
The Scots dialect written phonetically in the novel is equally jarring (and semi-incomprehensible) on screen, giving the distinct feel of taking in a foreign language and culture. Despite the film being consistently ranked as one of the greatest U.K. films ever made, as well as an entry into the decade’s “cool Britannia” craze, Trainspotting is a calculated indictment of England’s unjust diplomatic reign over Scotland and the moronic wave of Union Jack-donning pride in a time of economic despair. This was cleverly achieved through the film’s ‘80s setting, making Thatcherism and conservatism easy targets and falsely giving audiences the sense that the excess and greed emblematic of the ‘80s were far behind England’s newfound national pride and Tony Blair’s Labour-led government.
“It’s shite being Scottish!” wails Renton in a fit of rage between scores. “We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonized by!”
While obviously played for laughs (and emblematic of Scottish self-deprecating humor), this particular bit of dialogue is meant to be an ironic preface to Renton’s eventual move to London after he is forced by his parents to detox cold-turkey following an overdose. After a grueling few days of shocking hallucinations (Sick Boy’s dead baby making a particularly head-turning cameo) and agonizing withdrawal, Renton takes the advice of his underage girlfriend Diane (Kelly Macdonald in her breakout role) and moves to London to get away from the negative impact of his friends and home life.
This transition is fueled by one of the most distinct sonic and visual departures from the film’s previously established style of punk needle drops and grey shots of Edinburgh. The remix of Ice MC’s “Think About the Way” blares amid bright, rapidly cut shots of double-decker buses, The Queen’s Guard and Big Ben. It frames London as a clean, fun land of opportunity (on top of the frantic pace, sunny atmosphere and club music more accurately depicting the popularity of MDMA among these affluent partiers). For Renton, the only opportunity that awaits him in the British capital is a new job as a property letting agent, living in a dimly lit studio and subsisting solely on ramen and cigarettes.
“When you’re on junk you have only one worry: Scoring,” Renton says earlier in the film. “When you’re off it you are suddenly obliged to worry about all sorts of other shite…You have to worry about bills, about food, about some football team that never fucking wins, about human relationships and all the things that really don’t matter when you’ve got a sincere and truthful junk habit.” In his newfound “acceptable” lifestyle, Renton lingers on these mundane preoccupations. Instead of being depicted as a net positive for the protagonist’s health and wellness, this stint of sobriety is chillingly isolating, boring and perhaps just as directionless as unemployment and regular drug use.
Living tightly within his limited means and with only the regular letter from Diane adding any variety to his days, Renton’s lonely way of life is abruptly cut short. Begbie shows up on his doorstep one day, a wanted fugitive in Scotland for a botched armed robbery. Shortly after, Sick Boy joins them in Renton’s cramped flat, himself beginning a new venture as a part-time pimp, part-time drug dealer. After their antics inevitably lead to Renton losing his job (and most of his possessions, after Sick Boy pawns them for petty cash), the trio officially return to Edinburgh when they hear that Tommy—who recently started using heroin after breaking up with his girlfriend—dies due to HIV-related complications.
Trainspotting’s dark sense of humor (including Tommy’s death from kitten-induced toxoplasmosis) and disinterest in moral grandstanding gave the film a broad reputation of glorifying drug use. Certainly, the claustrophobic coziness of Renton’s overdose—represented by his sinking into a shag carpeted grave in the middle of Mother Superior’s floor as Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” plays—evokes a peaceful comfort that most depictions of overdoses eschew for vomit-covered pale faces. Actually, Renton’s withdrawal is presented in a far more sinister light than any scene of his heroin use, save for the baby dying of starvation as the adults nod off in the other room. A much larger blame is placed on the dearth of institutional resources available for safe drug use and getting clean—a dire shortcoming which directly leads to Renton injecting the hit that almost kills him. “Since I was on remand, they’ve had me on this program, this state sponsored addiction,” he says right before heading to Mother Superior’s. “Three sickly sweet doses of methadone a day instead of smack. But it’s never enough.”
The reality is, drug addiction can inhabit dual realms of pleasure and pain. Imbibing narcotics is something humans have done for two million years—long before social obligations, nuclear families and day jobs. Drugs can kill and irreparably alter lives, but so can just about anything. The burden of using drugs safely lies not solely with the individual drug user, but should rather be accounted for in the sociopolitical landscape of our lives. Trainspotting boldly states that drugs are simply a part of life—when we live in such a shallow, consumer-driven capitalistic society, is buying “the fucking big television, the washing machine, the car, the compact disc players and electric tin openers” really all that more meaningful and productive than doing drugs?
One of the most egregious misreadings of the film concerns Renton’s narrative bookends concerning “choosing life.” During the opening scene, he flees from police alongside Sick Boy and Spud after shoplifting in order to secure money for their next score. His voiceover muses: “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family…But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Life and heroin are initially presented as polar opposites, and by the film’s conclusion—after Renton runs off with £16,000 earned in a drug deal meant to be split equally among his friends—it appears that he’s changed his tune. “I’m going to change,” Renton asserts as a heart-pumping Underworld track plays before the credits roll. “This is the last of that sort of thing. Now I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life. I’m looking forward to it already. I’m gonna be just like you…children, walks in the park, nine to five, good at golf, washing the car, choice of sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing gutters, getting by, looking ahead, the day you die.”
“I’m going to be just like you” has the incredibly pointed twinge of condemnation, and for good reason. Does the audience honestly think Renton’s life’s better for this traitorous decision? Are any of our drug-free lives truly worth emulating? Aside from the direct reference to the U.K.’s ‘80s anti-drug “Choose Life” campaign, it’s obvious this consumerist aspiration is a crock of shit. The London clubbers aren’t lectured to “choose life,” nor is Renton’s mother with her Valium-filled medicine cabinet. For those with adequate means and leisure time, drug use is hardly frowned upon or medically discouraged.
For directionless youth with little aspiration to sell their souls for the distinction of being “socially acceptable” addicts, however, drugs are a one-way ticket to an untimely death. Trainspotting has the unique distinction of portraying addiction as a complex web of individual experiences, ranging from abstinence, occasional dabbling, lifelong use and relapse. Even if the characters examined aren’t necessarily worthy of unbridled empathy for a whole slew of reasons, their heroin use is by far the least offensive thing about them. On the contrary, it’s the insistence that addicts be relegated to the roles of inevitably doomed, unworthy of support “outsiders” that inevitably leads to crime, desperation and death. But hey, if you can’t buy a big TV, what’s even the point of living, anyway?
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan