Trainspotting is a thoroughly shitty movie, which isn't to say it's a bad one. Rather, the film is literally strewn with shit: painted in it, preoccupied with it, in awe of it. Shit, or the threat of it, is never far from the frame and functions as an ongoing metaphor--a fact of life, a state of being, a force to be reckoned with, a reminder of who we are and where we've been.
The most notorious of several shit scenes in Trainspotting is set in "the Worst Toilet in Scotland," where Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the least despicable in a group of heroin-damaged Edinburgh punks, has gone to relieve himself. The surroundings are horrible enough, but when Renton accidentally excretes the two opium suppositories he'd been using to help kick the habit, he's forced to dive into the toilet to retrieve them. He then swims to what turns out to be the clear-blue bottom of a vast ocean, retrieves his treasure, and returns triumphant. In another movie, this surreal episode might represent the vile nature of drug addiction. But Trainspotting suggests it's only through the toilet that one can find salvation. Or, put another way: One man's potty is another man's pot of gold.
A monster hit in Britain, Trainspotting is defiantly contradictory: an exhilarating portrait of heroin use, a black comedy of errors capped off by one character's sarcastic decision to "choose life." Besides smack and excrement, this punk manifesto contains a helping each of sex and bad language (delivered in a brogue that begs our full attention), an abundance of snotty energy, and, in deference to A Clockwork Orange, a little of the ol' ultraviolence. No doubt the film's success owes to its calculated gob of spit in the face of the predominantly tasteful British cinema. And if it doesn't quite earn the hype of having been dubbed "the British film of the decade" (that honor still goes to Mike Leigh's Naked), the force of its transgressions seems likely to inspire a British New Wave.
Trainspotting kicks off to the frenzied rhythm of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," the camera hurtling down an Edinburgh street as Renton and his mates make off with a handful of stolen goods. Even more so than its source, Irvine Welsh's 1993 novel of junkie anthropology, the movie makes a virtuoso joke of the speed with which it throws together tone, characterization, and wanton irreverence. The plot at first seems like a series of random anecdotes, but it's actually a tightly causal story of how, for the protagonist, all roads lead inexorably to smack. An unusually sexy and resilient addict, Renton wants to clean himself up, but he isn't helped by the rest of his gang: Spud (Ewen Bremner), a blissful idiot with a barely intelligible slur; Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), the group's chief "trainspotter" by virtue of his obsession with Sean Connery trivia; Tommy (Kevin McKidd), a unrepentant loser who's defined by his vast collection of videotapes; and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a violent alcoholic.
It's one of the film's anti-anti-drug postures that Begbie, the only member of the group who doesn't shoot heroin, is the most fucked-up--smashing full pints of beer into people's faces, punctuating his cruelest behavior with shrieks of "Das cunt!", pulling a knife on Renton for suggesting that his unwitting encounter with a transvestite could have been a good time. Investing Begbie's most psychotic acts with a palpable glee, Carlyle plays a GoodFellas-style Joe Pesci to McGregor's Ray Liotta--the narrator with a hint of conscience. In fact, Trainspotting's entire style is strongly indebted to GoodFellas in the way its quick-cut syntax of music, voice-overs, and cultural bric-a-brac works to both advance the story and deliver its euphoric hits. Aside from one drug-related nightmare, even the film's bleakest moments--an emergency-room overdose, a horrific cold-turkey withdrawal set to some icy techno beats--are thrilling to watch.
It's clear that director Danny Boyle isn't too interested in the down side of drugs, which is why the much-discussed question of whether his movie glamorizes heroin use is so tiresome. Of course it does. Harder to answer is whether Trainspotting's underlying shallowness was meant to critique the allure of immorality-as-rebellion, or whether it's just a by-product of directorial laziness. Ultimately, it isn't just addiction that compels the characters to shoot up, but their urge to both fulfill and rebel against their prescribed roles as the Scottish "scum of the Earth," living in a country "colonized by wankers." Why not shoot heroin? The alternatives--taking a suit-and-tie job, scouring the clubs for casual sex, playing Bingo--are even more appalling. Conversely, to do the right thing seems a hollow victory. When Renton, addressing the viewer, resolves that "I'm gonna be just like you," the joke is that he's merely trading one shitty way of life for another.
Trainspotting starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.