Mark Renton, the most articulate, self-aware buddy in an Edinburgh clique of ne'er-do-wells and heroin addicts, is the anti-hero of Trainspotting, a lowdown glory of a movie that makes every other midsummer release look like hash, or rehash. Renton, also known as Rents, scores derisive bull's-eyes in a rappin' voice-over that gives the film an eyes-wide-open consciousness even when its characters are wasted. He keeps mocking the straight world's admonishments to “Choose your future, choose life” — in Renton's mind, that amounts to “indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing the gutters, getting by, looking ahead, to the day you die.” He and his friends escape from enveloping dreariness by courting death in the fool's paradise of drugs. All the while, he inveighs against the horrors of the commonplace with a relish that recalls Jimmy Porter, the class warrior in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, who begged his mates, “Let's pretend that we're human beings, and that we're actually alive.”
Renton is twentysomething and, through much of the movie, gainfully unemployed. He's an unofficial beneficiary of the National Health Service, from which he and his cohort supply their shooting gallery. When a 15-year-old girlfriend warns him, “The world is changing, music is changing, even drugs are changing: You can't stay in here all day dreaming about heroin and Ziggy Pop,” he's sharp enough to correct her (“It's Iggy Pop”) and to get her point. Briefly he's able to submerge his existential hunger into a job as a real estate agent, mastering the hype and argot of condo sales as zestily as he did the hypos and argot of drugs: “Letting, subletting, subdividing, cheating, scamming, fragmenting, breaking away.” In the chilling capper to that aria he explains, “There was no such thing as society, and even if there was, I most certainly had nothing to do with it. For the first time in my adult life I was almost content.”
Disgusted at the pallor of social conventions and the limits of drug-fueled escapism, Renton is as vital a spokesman for his lost generation as Jimmy Porter was for the alienated young adults of the '50s. Osborne described Porter as “a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty,” and mused that “to be as vehement as he is to be almost non-committal.” The difference between Porter and the narrator of Trainspotting is that Renton is noncommittal: He'll rarely sound off to anybody except to agree that things are “shite.” (This movie is packed with “shite,” metaphoric and literal.) No one would take Renton for an angry young man — he hides his anger even from his peers, and he doesn't feel young. But in his white-hot narration, he spills out everything. The pull of his candor absorbs us in his criminality; we border on complicity.
Trainspotting is partly a study of fractious friendship: In this Three Musketeers of the Scottish 'Hood, the three leads are All for One and One for All only when they're in joint pursuit of a score. Renton (Ewan McGregor) is sardonic and recessive. The aptly named clown Spud (Ewen Bremner) is a loose cannon of goodwill. The slick Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is a bogus gutter philosopher who fixates on Sean Connery as the bellwether of Scottish culture — he offers a highly suspect running commentary on Connery's career, using the actor to illustrate his “unifying theory of life”: “At one time you've got it, and then you lose it, and it's lost forever.” Their fourth musketeer — their D'Artagnan — is a clean-living soccer fan who falls into drugs after his girlfriend rejects him. In some ways their chief antagonist turns out to be their supposed pal, a non-junkie named Begbie (Robert Carlyle) who's addicted only to violence. Renton isn't fully himself with any of them (except, for a moment or two, with Spud): As Osborne noted, “blistering honesty” doesn't foster friendship. But Renton's “b.h.” in the voice-over is just the ticket for a bond between a character and an audience. We follow him unquestioningly in and out of the abyss.
Like Gus Van Sant in Drugstore Cowboy, John Hodge and Danny Boyle, respectively this film's writer and director, dramatize a junkie's consciousness with such swift intelligence and humor that they both epitomize and transcend the drug-film genre. Trainspotting has the most terrifying drug-withdrawal ever put on-screen, yet the whole movie is about something bigger: Call it life-withdrawal. As Renton says, when you're off drugs, you have to worry about “human relationships and all the things that really don't matter when you've got a sincere and truthful junk habit.”
According to the glossary of dialect at the end of Irvine Welsh's original novel, “trainspotting” refers to “keeping obsessive notes on the arrival and departure of trains.” That pastime has been described as an analogue for the characters' useless habits. But trains figure in this movie mostly in how it moves — like twin locomotives. (The book doesn't hurtle along; Hodge quarried it for material and emerged with his own original construction.) While Renton rags away on the soundtrack, the narrative the moviemakers have hammered out of Welsh's episodes races ahead in a bullet-train rush. A much-blurbed Variety review linked this movie with A Clockwork Orange; in a Freudian slip on the paperback edition of the script, the cover refers to the protagonist not as Mark but as Alex Renton (Alex, of course, is the key figure in A Clockwork Orange).
If Trainspotting resembles any Kubrick movie, it's the 40-minute basic training section of Full Metal Jacket (the most effective sequence Kubrick has done in the last 25 years), which portrays a tortured group existence with blood and sweat but without tears. Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy do a ceaseless mating-and-divorce dance with their drugs. The moviemakers don't try to deny their pharmaceutical ecstasy, and don't wring their hands over wasted youth, either. Instead they beckon us into the 3-D absurdity of narcotic altered states.
Screenwriter Hodge and director Boyle offer galvanizing illustrations of the ways drugs can catalyze the surreal and subvert the real. Early on, in one of the more benign and comical transformations, Renton's head-first trip down “the most horrible toilet in Britain” in search of two lost opium suppositories is treated as a pearl dive. A half-hour later, natural wonder becomes fodder for scabrous jokes. In a hilarious and doleful turning point, the one square member of the extended friendship group, an athletic type named Tommy (Kevin McKidd), takes Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy for a hike through some picturesque moors. Tommy urges them to delight in “the great outdoors,” but they react like aliens uncertain that the fresh air will support their biological systems. When Tommy asks, “Doesn't it make you proud to be Scottish?” Renton answers, “I hate being Scottish. … Some people hate the English, but I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers.” (Shades of Jimmy Porter saying, “I must say it's pretty dreary living in the American Age — unless you're an American, of course. Perhaps all our children will be Americans.”) It's then that they agree on “a healthy, informed, democratic decision to get back on drugs.”
Unlike Kubrick, Hodge and Boyle intensify their characters as they bring an addled universe into focus. The anecdotes are cued to each of the guys in turn — to Spud's klutziness and Begbie's psychotic scrappiness, to Sick Boy's instinctive nihilism and Tommy's baleful, defeated niceness. And the performances are Dickensian in their plenitude. Carlyle's scary-comic Begbie starts over the top. Bremner's openhearted, empty-headed Spud is like Dopey on dope (and in one uproarious scene, on speed). Miller's Sick Boy is urgent yet dissociated –everything he says is equally confident and discordant, as if the roots of it are buried too deep in his brain. These are the creations of actors who've mainlined other men's experience and made it their own (and thus the audience's property, too). McGregor's Renton crowns this royal ensemble of the trash heap with acting that takes empathy to the limit. He's a master of covert communication as well as recitation — you “read” his furtive expressions, then can't wait to hear his explanations in the voice-over. His caginess as an actor contributes suspense to the central query: Will Renton survive?
The moviemakers use every light-fingered, free-associative trick of '60s moviemaking (and of '90s advertising) to frame that question. Hodge and Boyle arrive at a quick-cutting, spatially jarring style that opens up the addicts' elastic perspective while tapping into their veins. This writing-directing team triumphs not only in the slapstick melodrama but also in the scenes of pointless tragedy. After you experience their depiction of the death-by-neglect of a female junkie's baby, you'll know in your bones what the phrase “comes back to haunt you” means. In an age when commercials have appropriated the attitude and beat of pop-art pioneers, Hodge and Boyle renew the iconoclasm and irreverence of the early Godard and Richard Lester in a concentrated 95-minute blast of inspiration. Trainspotting is a breathless piece of work that resuscitates the art of movies. When it comes to molding raw goods into pithy words and piercing images, Hodge and Boyle just won't quit. Like their drug-revved artful dodgers, they're rebels without a pause.
Trainspotting opens Friday, July 26, at the Kabuki in