Smack Into Reality

The exhilarating paradoxes in the new Scottish drugs-and-destruction movie Trainspotting--fast becoming a hip hit on this side of the Atlantic, too--are that it takes as much pleasure in the depth of its nightmares as it does in the sting of its satire, and that its self-wasting junkies manage somehow to be as appealing as they are appalling. The narrator of the piece is a wiseass young heroin addict named Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) whose contempt for himself runs almost as deep as his scorn for all the phony symbols of civilization stuffed into him by the lame teachers at school and the awful parents at home. So he's equally deft at mocking his own penchant for self-annihilation and targeting the sacred cows of a society he believes has done him and his lowlife mates dirty.

"Choose life," Mark's sardonic credo begins. "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...Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows...Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats that you've spawned to replace yourselves...But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?"

Mark's ranting comes down, of course, from a long and distinguished tradition of British Isles ranting--the masterful satire of Jonathan Swift and the brooding Fifties discontent of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the high wit of George Bernard Shaw and the surreal sendups of Monty Python. Among current practitioners, only Mike Leigh, the director of Naked, seems to have the same gift as these moviemakers for ripping the facade off post-colonial Britain and showing the helplessness within.

Trainspotting's huge advance lies in a juiced-up, go-to-hell visual style that perfectly suits the obsessions and disaffections of its violent, nihilistic antiheroes. The vision of a whacked-out young tough disappearing down through the muck of a filthy toilet, then discovering a pair of pearls (in the form of opium suppositories) in a world suddenly transformed into a blue wonder may not be everyone's idea of the poetic imagination at work. But it summarizes the movie's ambiguous view of depravity and serves as a welcome alternative to the relentless good manners of the Jane Austen craze and the prim drawing-room niceties of Messrs. Merchant and Ivory. Give the British tastemakers their due, but here's a rough, startling view of life we haven't seen before.

Little wonder that the film and the scabrous 1993 Irvine Welsh novel from which it comes have caused a sensation and provoked a furor in the land of Chuck and Di--and, no doubt, down at the Scottish tourist board. The mythic land of classic golf courses and single malt whiskey has never been portrayed quite this way before--as a sewer full of caustic predators who mug the first cheery tourist they spot the minute he asks for directions to the men's room.

In fact, the grimy Edinburgh layabouts we meet here might be comrades-in-arms with the marauding gang from A Clockwork Orange, which hit the pavements a generation ago. But director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge, the collaborators who last year produced an uncommonly clever black comedy about yuppie greed and guilt called Shallow Grave, don't set out to moralize about the drug culture the way almost every heroin movie from The Man With the Golden Arm to Rush has done. In a reminder of Mike Figgis's revolutionary ambivalence toward alcoholism in Leaving Las Vegas, Boyle and Hodge show us the dark, dangerous joy of addiction as well as its all-consuming horrors. When Trainspotting's main man, Mark, stares into the camera and talks about his "sincere and truthful junk habit," he's not just assaulting tender, middle-class sensibilities; he's also revealing the struggle and the raison d'etre of his life: Get high; try not to die. We understand this all too well, not least because Miramax Films, the American distributor of Trainspotting, chose to redub some sections so that U.S. viewers would not get lost in a verbal thicket of Scottish burr and local street slang. It's hard to tell whether this is a service or a slight, but at least the seams don't show.

In the film's swift and tidy 94 minutes, Mark tries kicking his habit no fewer than three times, with various success. But what he cannot kick is the pointless exercise of addiction. For those who haven't already heard, that's the germ of the film's title: In England, "trainspotters" are obsessive railroad buffs who write down the serial numbers of every locomotive and coach that passes by, hoping for a complete set. But in the end, the hobby has no value or purpose. Neither does addiction.

For the most part, Mark's mates are down for the count right along with him. There's Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), an ironist with a flop of blond curls and a comic preoccupation with Sean Connery and James Bond movies. There's Spud (Ewen Bremner), a skeletal geek so hopelessly strung out that he needs a huge blast of speed to counteract all that smack so he can get through a job interview: For the tragically hip in the house, the runaway monologue that results will be one of the film's highlights, one of the "good parts" to be recalled again and again.

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