‘Trainspotting’: Depravity Raised to an Art Form

The R-rating warning on the disc cautions the viewer about “heroin use and resulting depravity”. If you’ve seen Trainspotting, and surely you have, this just makes you smile as you remember all the hilarious depravity, and deep humanity, that made this film such a revelation in 1996.

Widely remembered as the coming out party for Ewan McGregor and Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionare, 127 Hours), Trainspotting was a little indie film that became a cultural phenomenon, a cult film at the center of a huge cult. Even American audiences couldn’t get enough, despite the sometimes impenetrable (to their ears) accents (especially Spud’s).

Not since William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch has there been such a lyrical evocation of the nastiness of a life on junk. Rent-boy’s overdose to the tune of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” or “the evil shot” are all moments that make watching the film feel like reading an un-put-down-able anthology of short stories. Its an exploration of the marginal, the criminal and the addictive that makes its audience laugh deeply and that makes its audience deeply uncomfortable, often in the same scene.

Each of the characters are incredibly dynamic incarnations. McGregor’s Mark “Rent-boy” Renton obviously gets the most attention, but Johnny Lee Miller as Sick Boy with his Sean Connery obsession is especially memorable. So is Robert Carlyle who manages to be both hilarious and terrifying as Begbie. Even Kelly MacDonald shines during her slight screen time, showing the promise we’ll get to see more of in No Country for Old Men and now in Boardwalk Empire.

What’s especially notable about the narrative is how the film never loses its intensity. It moves effortlessly from absurdist comedy to inhuman tragedy to something like a horror movie where dead children crawl across a junkie’s ceiling. In none of these modes does it lose any of its dynamism. Even the gruesome death of a neglected child and the heart-wrenching end of Tommy hardly slows things down.

There’s also a fairly harsh critique of ’90s culture in the film, sometimes implicit and sometimes coming as a punch in the face. Renton’s brief discovery of the joys of cowboy entrepreneurialism is shown to be his idea that “there’s no such thing as society” and if there is “he’s not a part of it”. Ayn Rand fans (who seem to barely actually read Ayn Rand) should take note. Who is John Galt? He’s Rent-boy selling real estate.

The final frame, in which we see the decision by Rent-boy to become “just like you” with “the job, the family and the fucking big television”, is the real, and not just the literal, final message to the audience. Boyle maybe gets a bit heavy-handed here, but it’s hard to argue with his intent. The politically and ideologically loaded phrase “choose life” works so well here and Boyle expertly turns the film back on us and all our expectations about what constitutes authenticity and wise choices. Go ahead and talk about kids “putting poison in their system”, a phrase the film mocks mercilessly. What kind of poison are you putting in yours?

And can I just add how bizarre it was to see sallow and sick-eyed Rent-boy show up as a young Obi Wan Kenobi just a few years after this, as if he’d spent all the money he stole on tuition at Jedi Academy?

The Blu-ray transfer looks as good as can be expected from this low-budget film (Trainspotting managed such a wide release that its generally forgotten that it was a light wallet effort). The film has already gotten its Blu-ray release in other regions and word is that the Lionsgate Region 1 release is the most crisp out there. Where this disc really benefits is in the audio transfer, superbly pumped up in 5:1 from the DVD release.

Sadly, the extras have not been updated since that 2004 DVD release. This is a pretty unfortunate trend in the Blu-Ray release of essential films. Here is what seems to be happening. Now that Blu-ray is a format clearly here to stay (the gigantic success of the Star Wars release seems to assure this if it wasn’t assured already) there is a race to get key titles out on the market. We are getting great new transfers but stripped down versions of special features. Especially bothersome on this disc is the 2004 retrospective. This “then” and “now” look at the phenomenon of the film is mostly meaningless since it was done about eight years ago.

Although the extras need an update, the film feels as fresh as ever. Even those bits that make it feel like a 1996 time capsule are self-conscious in their reflection on the passage of time, telling the viewer that it understands that its representing a specific cultural moment. Even if its not my personal favorite, I think that Trainspotting remains the best of Boyle’s oeuvre by any objective standard. I’d put it in the running for the best film of the decade that produced that specific cultural moment.

RATING 9 / 10