It’s been 15 years since Transpotting hit theaters, propelling Ewan McGregor (Renton) into an international star, and it’s a film which still holds up (even Sick Boy says, “Heroin’s got a great fucking personality”). After all, humans have been finding ways to intoxicate themselves for countless centuries and even though the substances may change over the years the motivations are the same. While so many films from the ‘90s are dated, reeking of nostalgia and a different era (dial-up modems, baggy pants, and so forth), Trainspotting is still relevant today.
Trainspotting follows the exploits of a group of slackers and drug addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland. Renton is the protagonist – and the narrator – and he travels through his early 20s along with the rest of his fuck-up friends. Here is a lowdown on the principal cast:
Renton (Ewan McGregor): A lower middle-class junkie. Out of the main characters Renton is the second most likeable; he also seems like a heroin addict because he actually likes the drug, not because it’s fashionable. While that last statement would imply the addicts in Trainspotting don’t enjoy heroin he seems more like somebody who does heroin because he’s ultimately depressed and looking for something to fill his loneliness and dread. Enter heroin: a drug which he claims is like the best orgasm ever multiplied by large degrees: “Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had; multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it.”
Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller): Sick Boy is a bastard – plain and simple. When Renton kicks heroin in the film’s first act Sick Boy goes off too just to spite him. He’s a hustler and in the sequel Porno, which was written by author Irvine Welsh in the early 2000s, he becomes a pimp and small time pornography producer. He’s always looking for that great score, that one big job so he can loaf around all day doing nothing. In short, Sick Boy’s worthless but thinks he’s destined for greatness.
Spud (Ewen Bremner): Spud is the most likeable character in Trainspotting. Like Renton, Spud’s taste for heroin seems genuine and not based on fashions. Of course, like Renton, I’m certain Spud’s addiction’s covering something melancholy inside him but on the outside he’s a junkie and proud of it. However, unlike the other characters Spud seems aimless and a little dull. In Porno he tries to write a history of Leith – a small city just north of Edinburgh.
Begbie (Robert Carlyle): Begbie’s a sociopath/psychopath. He likes to fight for fun, likes to steal for fun, and has no problem hurting people for no good reason. Begbie doesn’t do heroin but is still a common hood. Like Sick Boy, Begbie’s also looking for the next big score but is stuck in the world of small time crookery. Overall, he’s a despicable character.
Tommy (Kevin McKidd): Tommy’s not featured on the poster for Trainspotting and I’m not sure why. Aside from McGregor, McKidd’s one of the only few actors I’ve seen do anything worthwhile in the last few years (HBO’s Rome). For the first half of the film Tommy is a upright citizen – “He never told lies, he never took drugs, and he never cheated on anyone” – but becomes a heroin addict after his girlfriend leaves him (and incident which Renton is partially responsible for).
Realistically, none of the characters are thoroughly likeable – they’re either crooks or heroin addicts. Yet, these characters aren’t one dimensional, as is shown with Renton right after the opening scene where he tries going off heroin. It doesn’t last too long. The protagonists (and antagonists) aren’t simple characters and entirely unlikeable but they aren’t exactly relatable or completely sympathetic. Director Danny Boyle does a good job of showing you the main character at his highest and lowest points, bringing you along for the ride and making you run back and forth between liking him and disdain. When Renton moves to London, goes clean, and starts getting his act together it’s difficult to feel bad for him – after all, he’s a former junkie merging into the capitalist marketplace, playing the game and enjoying it. He even says it’s the best he’s felt in his adult life. There is something sweet about success, even if it goes against an ideology you’ve held to in a former life.
My only complaint about Trainspotting is how it glamorizes heroin for such a long time. Ultimately the film’s message doesn’t glorify the drug but it does present it as fun and exciting at times. Renton and his friends are running around, meeting girls, having conversations about James Bond and other such topics, and they’re all good looking – like a music video. However, following the death of Tommy from AIDS and toxoplasmosis, Spud’s short stint in prison, a dead baby, and Renton’s arrest the allure of heroin addiction disappears quickly and the realities of being a junkie and a criminal loses its luster. Renton’s trek into respectability, juxtaposed against all these dismal events, changes Boyle’s glorification of heroin. Eventually you’re left feeling like Renton: sick of being a junkie, of the risks involved with everybody’s scores, and so forth. The lifestyle, even a small flirtation with it (which happens in the film’s third act) doesn’t seem appealing whatsoever.
Its good Boyle changes the film, switching from a glorification of drug use to a condemnation of the lifestyle. Yet, I don’t think Trainspotting necessarily discards the sentiments surrounding counterculture; instead it operates on the fringes of both culture and counterculture. Like Diane tells Renton: “You’re not getting any younger, Mark. The world’s changing; music’s changing; even drugs are changing. You can’t stay in here all day dreaming about heroin.” There is some truth in her statement, for if Renton wants to actually enjoy life he needs to change along with the world and the world doesn’t wait around for a junkie. In the film’s final scene, after Renton has ripped off about £16,000 from his friends and is walking down a London street at dawn his says through the narration:
I’m going to be just like you: the job, the family, the fucking big television, the washing machine, the car, the compact disc and electric tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisure wear, luggage, three-piece suit, D.I.Y., game shows, junk food, 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.
Even though Renton is embracing, at least mentally, all these activities associated with the exact opposite of being a junkie there’s something in this list which still maintains a sense of individuality and counterculture. It’s not the D.I.Y. or recognizing your own death; it’s looking at all these things as the antithesis to what he embodied previously, realizing it’s possible to embrace all these tenets of domesticity without fully losing that rebellious aspect of your personality. Will Renton do it? Having read Irvine Welsh’s novel Porno I can say what’s happens to Renton but isolating Trainspotting from its sequel novel changes the story. It makes Renton’s story open to all these possibilities and even though he ripped off his friends (except Spud: Renton leaves him his share of the final drug deal) and admits he’s a “bad person” it’s difficult seeing him as truly bad. Maybe it’s because we’re raised to believe drugs are bad and anybody associated with drugs is a criminal (which I don’t believe is true) but watching Renton shed his old skin and wishing to assume a new persona altogether is quite satisfying.
I first saw Trainspotting 15 years ago and, like I said in my opening paragraph, I don’t think the film is dated whatsoever. Maybe the music, which is still great, isn’t wholly contemporary (Pulp, Blur, etc.) but the themes in Trainspotting are still relevant and will continue to be into humanity’s future. Unless our governments change their attitude towards drugs in the near future a story like Trainspotting won’t lose its impact. People won’t cease getting high, even if Earth’s nation-states change their tune and stop their silly drug war, and even then the film will contain a moniker of relatibility because it’ll demonstrate how drugs were once viewed and the culture surrounding it; it’ll work as a vehicle to demonstrate the glamorized version of drug culture and the consequences.