August 16, 1996 in Seven

‘Trainspotting’ Shows Fatal Allure Of Heroin

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career.

Choose “Trainspotting” to watch this summer.

By now, this thoroughly engaging British import - which has enjoyed nearly as much hype as the recent Beatles reunion - is coming at us with few surprises left attached.

So let’s tackle the film’s most controversial aspect right off. First, a fact: Yes, “Trainspotting” portrays heroin addiction.

Now, an opinion: It does NOT glamorize heroin addiction.

You’ve probably heard conflicting reports concerning this. And, to be honest, there are scenes in Danny Boyle’s film that are alluring enough to make you wonder.

When Renton (Ewan McGregor), the film’s anti-hero protagonist, shoots up, he does so with glee. And the resultant high is far better than anything he’s ever experienced in regular life - better, he says, than the best orgasm ever imagined.

And that, you see, is the heart of the “Trainspotting” controversy: We’re not talking “Panic in Needle Park” here. Boyle, bringing to life the one-time cult (and now best-selling) novel by British writer Irvine Welsh, shows precisely why someone might actually want to inject heroin into a handy blood vessel.

After all, Renton points out, the ungodly pleasure of it is why people engage in such pointed self-destruction. “We aren’t stupid,” he says.

The notion of stupidity, of course, is debatable. For what Boyle also shows you is the downside of heroin use. The sleazy drug dens, the painful side-effects, the obligatory deaths (from AIDS, from neglect, from miscalculation, etc.), the paranoid nightmares.

The problem for some people, though, is that Boyle’s shimmery filmmaking style tends to overshadow the negative aspects of heroin addiction. As in his previous (albeit minor) hit, “Shallow Grave,” Boyle isn’t interested in simply following the lives of his characters. His method is to create a lively cinematic landscape - two parts Oliver Stone to one part Richard Lester - then throw in characters and watch them wallow.

The result emphasizes style over substance but not to the point of exclusion. For the message is there for all to plainly see: Heroin is a profound temptation, but it is the ultimate fatal attraction. If you continue to use it, sooner or later you will die.

But Boyle doesn’t dwell on either commentary or plot. In terms of storyline, what transpires in “Trainspotting” is fairly simple.

In short, Renton and his friends, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Begbie (Robert Carlyle), Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Tommy (Kevin McKidd), are a loose lot with little in common except their Scottish heritage and their love of H.

(Note: The film’s title is based on an eccentric English practice of observing and recording the numbers of train engines. What that has to do with heroin addiction is anybody’s guess.)

Actually, though, the group’s love for heroin is decidedly relative. Renton, for example, weans himself off his addiction every so often with the aid of a locked door and a virtual dispensary of non-prescription pharmaceuticals. Sick Boy, his rival, goes cold turkey merely as a way, Renton believes, of showing his superiority.

Spud just goes along with the crowd, while Tommy - at least at first - prefers to lift weights, take hikes through the glorious Scottish Highlands and pursue a sexual relationship (which, as it’s played out here, is another kind of death wish altogether).

Only Begbie, a walking sociopathic alcoholic, refuses to have anything to do with the white powder - until he stumbles onto a chance to make some money, which is what passes for the film’s climactic moment.

Until then, Boyle gives us one scene after another of the drug life, each one pulsing with a “Shallow Grave”-like energy erupting from bizarre, often gross imagery (Renton diving into a toilet, a dead baby crawling across the ceiling), MTV quick cuts and a musical score that thump-thump-thumps with techno-pop urgency.

It is the coolish feel of “Trainspotting,” then, that you end up carrying from the theater. More so than the anti-drug message. More even than the performances, which are uniformly superb.

Particularly good is McGregor, who starred in “Shallow Grave” and can be seen in “Emma” (which also opens today). His Renton is an always-watchable creation who charms us even as he betrays each of his friends (though he ends up doing a solid for Spud). But all of them, including Kelly MacDonald as Renton’s school-girl squeeze, fit their respective roles to perfection.

This triumph of “Trainspotting” as experiential cinema, though, is inherently what fuels the film’s controversy. For clearly some viewers are bound to be most impressed by what likely will disgust others, namely the film’s graphic depiction of the feel-good allure that makes drugs, especially heroin, attractive in the first place.

But then many dangerous activities are attractive - driving fast, rafting whitewater rivers, skydiving, hiking in Glacier Park, having unprotected sex and eating red meat to name just a few. The point of having a brain is to know when to say yes to danger and when to say no.

“Trainspotting” isn’t about helping us make such choices. It figures we can do that all by ourselves.

While still enjoying the ride.

, DataTimes MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “TRAINSPOTTING” **** Location: Lyons Cinemas Credits: Directed by Danny Boyle, written by John Hodge (from the novel by Irvine Welsh), starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle and Kelly MacDonald. In heavy Scottish burr with the occasional much-needed subtitle. Running time: 1:34 Rated: R

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Trainspotting: “Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Probably the first point to be made about “Trainspotting” is that nobody who sees it is likely to sign up for drug addiction. Far from being a recruiting poster for heroin use, it’s a brilliant, unforgettable, scaldingly honest look at underclass rage - and one of the most important films to come out of the British Isles in years. David Goodman/Associated Press: … “Trainspotting” is too morally bland for the ugliness it depicts. It’s yet one more movie with the subtle, destructive message that it’s not so terrible to do bad things, as long as they’re carried off in a stylish, amusing way. Janet Maslin/New York Times: The needle goes in. The floorboards open. And Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the acidly attractive hero of “Trainspotting,” drifts into the druggy oblivion that this film depicts with such dead-on, calculating ingenuity. Henry Sheehan/Orange County Register: The cliches of movie junkiedom are sheathed with a Scottish burr and not much else in “Trainspotting,” an inexplicably popular youth film from the U.K. making a much-hyped debut on U.S. shores. With a wall-to-wall soundtrack of contemporary British bands (Blur, Pulp, Primal Scream) and bygone prepunk icons (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed), the movie strenuously stakes a claim to hipness that is easy to acknowledge; this could be the longest music video ever recorded. Jack Mathews/Newsday: “Trainspotting” veers over the road like a drunken driver, while remaining clear-headed about its destination. The punk world it inhabits is not a disposable culture filled with dispensible people, but a sort of halfway house for youths preparing to exit society. Amy Dawes/Los Angeles Daily News: As one of the few movies to capture the spirit and pulse of a youth culture, however marginal, without a tinge of condescension, “Trainspotting” is standout contemporary filmmaking.

These sidebars appeared with the story: “TRAINSPOTTING” **** Location: Lyons Cinemas Credits: Directed by Danny Boyle, written by John Hodge (from the novel by Irvine Welsh), starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle and Kelly MacDonald. In heavy Scottish burr with the occasional much-needed subtitle. Running time: 1:34 Rated: R

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Trainspotting: “Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Probably the first point to be made about “Trainspotting” is that nobody who sees it is likely to sign up for drug addiction. Far from being a recruiting poster for heroin use, it’s a brilliant, unforgettable, scaldingly honest look at underclass rage - and one of the most important films to come out of the British Isles in years. David Goodman/Associated Press: … “Trainspotting” is too morally bland for the ugliness it depicts. It’s yet one more movie with the subtle, destructive message that it’s not so terrible to do bad things, as long as they’re carried off in a stylish, amusing way. Janet Maslin/New York Times: The needle goes in. The floorboards open. And Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the acidly attractive hero of “Trainspotting,” drifts into the druggy oblivion that this film depicts with such dead-on, calculating ingenuity. Henry Sheehan/Orange County Register: The cliches of movie junkiedom are sheathed with a Scottish burr and not much else in “Trainspotting,” an inexplicably popular youth film from the U.K. making a much-hyped debut on U.S. shores. With a wall-to-wall soundtrack of contemporary British bands (Blur, Pulp, Primal Scream) and bygone prepunk icons (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed), the movie strenuously stakes a claim to hipness that is easy to acknowledge; this could be the longest music video ever recorded. Jack Mathews/Newsday: “Trainspotting” veers over the road like a drunken driver, while remaining clear-headed about its destination. The punk world it inhabits is not a disposable culture filled with dispensible people, but a sort of halfway house for youths preparing to exit society. Amy Dawes/Los Angeles Daily News: As one of the few movies to capture the spirit and pulse of a youth culture, however marginal, without a tinge of condescension, “Trainspotting” is standout contemporary filmmaking.

Get stories like this in a free daily email


Please keep it civil. Don't post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy. Read our forum standards and community guidelines.

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus