The Scottish accents are so thick in Trainspotting that for the first few minutes you're not sure the characters are really saying what you're hearing. Could it be--in the politically correct '90s--that the central characters of a film are extolling the virtues of heroin addiction? Can these smart, interesting, vigorous young people be smack fiends? Is it possible that the director, Danny Boyle, and the screenwriter, John Hodge, have such confidence in their own abilities as storytellers that they can afford to glorify serious drug use among their heroes and not risk alienating the audience? Remarkably, they've done just that, delivering a riotously disturbing portrait of an angry, self-absorbed youth culture intent on bringing about its own destruction.
Hodge and Boyle seem to have discovered that the safest way to ensure an audience for their peculiarly twisted take on life is by casually violating as many taboos, both social and artistic, as they can cram into two hours. Trainspotting's frank, direct approach to its topic blesses it with an inventive simplicity too often missing from other art films; along with Lone Star, it just might recreate summer as a season devoted to great storytelling as much as explosive carnage.
Trainspotting owes its success in large part to the structural decision to put the viewer into the mind of an intelligent, painfully self-aware junkie named Mark, played by Ewan MacGregor. Without audience identification, spending so much time with Mark and his buddies--Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremner)--could seem onerous. Like the anti-hero Graham Young in The Young Poisoner's Handbook, who escaped the debilitating boredom of suburbia by chronicling his murderous experiments, Mark is bright and cynical, good-natured but possessing a streak of meanness. Instead of murdering people, Mark copes with the smothering monotony of provincial life through the slow, fun, ritualistic suicide of drug use. Heroin isn't a monkey on his back, some disease that needs to be overcome; most of the time, he stops short of being pathetic, even in his selfish obsession with getting a fix. When his desperation becomes profoundly acute--such as when he enters what is undeniably the worst toilet in Scotland--there's a sick comedic undercurrent that keeps you riveted even while you squirm in your chair at its intensity. Mark's view of the world is inherently fatalistic, but he's sanguine about it, and heroin is merely a convenient outlet to ease him into what he perceives as the inevitability of his own death.
This isn't the first time Boyle and Hodge have looked for the common ground between the revolting and the funny. Their last film, Shallow Grave, was a warped comic thriller about the tensions that arise between three rude, snobbish roommates when they find themselves united by their own wickedness. The film's roiling psychologizing erupted into a ballet of violence, resembling what The Treasure of the Sierra Madre might have been were it directed by Sam Peckinpah. Yet Shallow Grave suffered from an unnecessary preoccupation with reaching the conclusion it sought, at all costs; in straining to maintain a particular tone, it resisted the urge to let the story progress naturally.
While Shallow Grave could be compared to the Coen brothers' debut film, Blood Simple, Trainspotting is something more than the Coens' Raising Arizona. Although the two films share an affection for stylish excesses--many low angle shots and bold camera movements, a farcical comic demeanor, and Scorseselike visual acuity--there's a harder edge to Trainspotting, a more unrelentingly bitter message. While the Coens may needle the main characters in Raising Arizona for their desire to have children, the film eventually embraces them for the sweet, ultimately selfless generosity of their love, and rewards them for their prosaic dreams. By the end of Trainspotting, you come to understand that the efforts Mark and his friends put into their addictions transcend a simple desire to get high. They aren't satisfied with the ordinary, but insist on a kind of greatness. Being junkies has no thrill in itself; rather, it shows the characters' refusal to be assimilated by the bourgeois culture they've learned to reject. When Mark mocks Valium as the "domestic, socially acceptable drug addiction" of the older generation, you can't avoid the fact that Valium is a symbol of safeness he simply can't abide. Like Mark's pugilistic friend who "didn't do drugs, he did people," the appeal to this lifestyle lies in its anti-social ethic. It's the very danger of heroin, its unacceptability in polite society--combined with a cavalier approach toward its use--that gives the addiction its potency. Trainspotting resembles Raising Arizona hopped up on amphetamines.
That the cynicism reaches such high levels is surprising, considering the playful airiness Boyle maintains. He couldn't do it without the superb performance of Ewan MacGregor. Unlike Nicolas Cage's character in Leaving Las Vegas or the protagonists in Rush, The Basketball Diaries and Clean and Sober, Mark has a future, can see it, and appears to reject it. That's a particular breed of self-destructiveness that can be difficult for an audience to sympathize with, and MacGregor's ability to hold our attention while maintaining an emotional connection also is significant to the film's success. Mark's humanity is always just close enough to the surface that the audience never loses sight of it.
Trainspotting looks like it may use drugs in the same way that Hate (La Haine), a recent French film about street hoods in Paris, established a meaningful tone by equating violence and crime with its protagonists' aimlessness. Trainspotting, though, takes a metaphorical approach, one in which the horrifying (a dead child is one of the shocking images that lingers inside your head) shares space with the horrifyingly comedic. By being more vulgar than gory, the film approximates the details of daily drug life with accuracy and compassion, and its message takes root all the more securely by being grounded in its characters' perceptions of reality. It manages to provide shocks by portraying the inherent decency inside even the most reprehensible junkie. By humanizing its anti-heroes, Trainspotting creates a sense of understanding that crystallizes the essence of the drug subculture with startling clarity.
Trainspotting. Miramax. Ewan MacGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller. Written by John Hodge. Directed by Danny Boyle. Opens July 26.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.