Film and TV

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.

The other members of Mark's set are Tommy (Kevin McKidd), who doesn't use drugs at all but is certainly not immune to their hazards, and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a barroom psychopath so violent that he doesn't need to inject anything at all: He flashes and fires on his own uncontrollable rage.

We see a couple of pub brawls, a courtroom episode in which one of the boys gets sent up for theft, and a hilarious bit wherein Mark lures a sullen temptress from the din of a discotheque and the next day discovers she's a teenager gotten up for classes in her school blazer. There's also some surprisingly witty commentary about drugs and life in the scuzzy, syringe-strewn shooting galleries where these misfits conduct their life's work. And there's a hallucinatory cold-turkey sequence to end all hallucinatory cold-turkey sequences, starring our man Mark and a cast of demons flying around his boyhood bedroom--including a dead baby and a lost friend in shackles.

For the most part, though, Trainspotting is bereft of plot or narrative, and that's probably as it should be. Screenwriter Hodge has selected judiciously from Welsh's semi-autobiographical novel (a book so popular in London and Edinburgh that it's sold in record stores, to kids who otherwise read nothing but cigarette packages) and the result is an episodic series of dramatic jolts and jangles--as if we were the ones with the spikes in our arms. That's the new visual style I mentioned earlier. Almost nothing flows event-to-event in Trainspotting. Instead, Boyle slams us from sensation to sensation, pounding home the point with effective "Brit Pop" tunes by Sleeper, Elastica and Blur. But in no sense is this moviemaking-as-rock-video; it's no collection of fleeting images for short attention spans. The whole movie has a scary internal logic that defies its jaggedness and impatience, and it fits together like a bad dream enclosed by a brilliant joke. Let it be a compliment to say that Trainspotting works on the audience like a series of narcotic hits.

As for young Mark Renton, a descendant of Osborne's angry young man Jimmy Porter, Anthony Burgess's leering orangeman Alex and all the heroin-addled antiheroes of William Burroughs, Boyle and Hodge do cook up a little drama about his fate. In the last thirty minutes or so, the film's haywire skeins are finally drawn together when the bad boys from Edinburgh, suddenly in luck, go down south to London with a couple of bricks of purloined heroin in hand to strike a deal. Combining the paranoia of the salesmen, who are clearly out of their depth, the belligerent aggression of Begbie, who can't stop fighting the world, and a satchelful of 100-pound notes, the filmmakers get through to a kind of uneasy conclusion about smack, ambition and Mark's decision to "choose life." Like the rest of the film, with its splintered narrative, its highs and lows blindsiding us at every turn, it's not what you expect. But it, too, has an an undeniable logic, and we have no choice but to be carried along for the ride on an incredible rush of image and sound and character.

"Heroin's got great fuckin' personality," Sick Boy tells us. Like it or not, so does Trainspotting, a sheer seduction of a film that leaves you bruised in the end and strangely happy.

Trainspotting. Screenplay by John Hodge, from a novel by Irvine Welsh. Directed by Danny Boyle. With Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd and Robert Carlyle.