Just what you need, right? An urban grunge flick from Scotland about four shoplifting, slum-dwelling Edinburgh junkies with accents as thick as their smack-addled heads. And hold on for the surreal sight of one lad sticking his head and finally his entire body down the filthiest toilet in Scotland to retrieve an opium suppository. Then there’s the cold-turkey nightmare featuring the ghost of a dead baby. Braveheart it ain’t.
Trainspotting is a singular sensation, a visionary knockout spiked with insight, wild invention and outrageous wit. Sure it’s easy to mainline mind-numbing. American-made summer junk like Eraser or Striptease. But doing so can’t match the thrill of watching as Trainspotting, from Irvine Welsh’s 1993 cult novel, declares war on the dull gravity of social realism. There’s incendiary daring in it, a willingness to go for broke that carries you over the rough spots. Director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and doctor-turned-screenwriter John Hodge have upped the controversial ante on Shallow Grave, the black comic thriller that marked the thirtysomething team’s hit 1995 debut.
“Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it.” That testimonial to heroin comes from Renton, the film’s nihilistic anti-hero, played by 25-year-old Ewan McGregor, who gives a mesmerizing, maliciously funny performance. Trainspotting is that rare movie (Drugstore Cowboy is another) that owns up to the euphoria of drugs as well as their risks. “Without the pleasure, we wouldn’t do it,” says Renton. “After all, we’re not fucking stupid.”
That’s debatable. Like the train spotters in Britain who compulsively clock railroad comings and goings, Renton and his mates impose a bogus order on their lives. Renton makes a ritual of shooting up. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) obsesses about the films of Sean Connery. Spud (Ewen Bremner) uses speed to stay out of work and on the dole. Tommy (Kevin McKidd) makes his own sex videos and turns to drugs only when his girl dumps him for losing one of the tapes. Begbie (the amazing Robert Carlyle) thinks all drugs are “shite,” but he’s a boozing sadist whose habit is beating up on men and women for being “doss cunts.”
Women don’t mean much in a guy culture where heroin kills hard-ons. Renton, when he’s off the stuff, registers a small shock when a pickup, Diane (Kelly Macdonald), turns out to be a jailbait. It’s Renton, hating Scotland for not picking “a decent culture to be colonized by” and the consumerism of his parents, who sees a way out of this codependent vise. Spiritual redemption? Hardly. He betrays his mates in a drug sting, pockets the cash and hits the road. “The truth is, I’m a bad person,” he admits in a voice-over. “But that’s going to change.”
Believe him or not, Trainspotting looks hard at the alternatives to living in oblivion. They’re not as trendy as stealing and shooting up to a pulsating Brit-pop score (Elastica, Primal Scream, Pulp), but the film’s flash can’t disguise the emptiness of these blasted lives. Trainspotting is 90 minutes of raw power that Boyle and a bang-on cast inject right into the vein.