Film Review: Trainspotting

I watched Trainspotting several times in my early twenties. My college boyfriend really liked it; when I found out during a break-up talk that he gave me that he’d been silent about past drug use, I watched Trainspotting again, looking for answers. It was actually assigned viewing for the film class that I met him in and I eventually did a term paper about the cinematographic use of color in the film. I tracked down the original script online, so I know the deleted scenes; I bought and read the Irvine Welsh novel it was based on, too, and read that cover to cover (fair warning: Trainspotting the book reads much less like a novel and much more like a collection of short stories). It’s safe to say that I approached this week’s viewing expecting something familiar.

I can only assume that many of the readers of this review will also be quite familiar with Trainspotting; the film was released almost twenty years ago and it was very popular with a certain segment of disaffected youth. There’s probably even research available online answering the question that jumps to my mind as to how it went over with people who have actually used heroin. I hadn’t, my friends who were fans of the film hadn’t (at least not to my knowledge), and even my college boyfriend didn’t name heroin on the list of drugs he rattled off to try to shock me into disapproving of him. Were we the film’s target market?

One of the pieces of trivia I collected about the story was the significance of the name; turns out trainspotting is a hobby in and of itself that involves watching trains, most likely freight, passing at a certain point on a railroad and keeping track of things like number of cars per train, types of car per train, serial numbers of cars, that sort of thing. Most people who don’t practice the hobby find the concept of it extremely boring and a waste of time, and that was what Irvine Welsh was trying to convey – that the use of heroin is ultimately boring and a waste of time. (I heard that practitioners of actual trainspotting, who of course do not consider their hobby a boring waste of time, got extremely offended as a subculture by Welsh connecting what they were doing to heroin, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there.) What would other users of heroin have to say about this portrayal?

Yeah, my guess is if I were to dig in online I could find some appraisals of this, and any reader of this blog entry who can make an educated and sensitive response to this question is welcome to weigh in below in the Comments. I’m content to leave the question hanging, at least for now.

The city boys feel out of place.
The city boys feel out of place.

I could take this review in any number of directions. For example, I could do a three-body-point standard analysis of the elements that leap out at me. I could probably fill twice the length of one of my normal reviews if I were to seriously take apart the use of color like I did for that term paper so long ago (here’s a hint, pay attention to the color red and how the main character’s skin tone and clothing often seem chameleonic). Or I could try to wow you with those pieces of trivia that I unearthed so long ago that I remember, like how the character of Diane was really supposed to make her exit from the script. But I’d much rather talk about how, a good seven viewings in, Trainspotting managed to surprise me this week after I’d thought I had it all figured out.

You see, I never understood the relationship between Begbie and Renton (main character) before, but I get it now.

For the two or three of you that haven’t seen Trainspotting yet, I’ll give you the bare essentials of this part of the story. (For anyone who has, feel free to skim ahead a few sentences, or take this as a refresher.) The main character of Trainspotting, Mark Renton, is defined by his heroin addiction. He’s a young white male native to Scotland, living in a large Scottish city in the late 1980s. Renton tries more than once during the events portrayed in the film to quit heroin, but is so repelled by “normal” life and human relationships that he returns to the smack to escape from the challenges and petty frustrations. Towards the end of the story after a near-fatal overdose resulting from combining heroin and methadone, Renton makes a bid to start over by moving to London. Soon after he tries for this fresh start, however, a violent so-called mate from his past named Begbie who is trying to escape an armed robbery charge comes calling. Begbie takes over Renton’s life, intimidates and threatens him. Renton’s interior monologue regarding Begbie echoes something that was said about Begbie earlier in the story by another character, Tommy (who later dies from toxoplasmosis complications of AIDS, sorry to spoiler): He’s a mate, what can you do?

Prison is the general consensus.
Prison is the general consensus.

Friend after friend who watched Trainspotting with me who did not have life experience with heroin would ask the same question that would rattle around in my brain regarding Begbie. I’ve had people ask it out loud as an interjection while watching, not even wait to ask it until after the film is over. “Why doesn’t he turn him in???” I would shrug it off as a weakness in the film, or as a narrative necessity of plot magic.

But now that I’ve been in treatment for an addictive behavior, referenced in the post I wrote previously this week, I have a different perspective than I did back in undergrad, and the irrationality of Renton’s choice to harbor Begbie is no longer plot magic, is no longer irritating or even puzzling – it’s realistic and it’s genius. And tragic, don’t forget the “tragic” part. I’ve seen firsthand how someone who chooses the escape of an addiction – and that is what all addictions are about, escape, and that is all Renton knows how to do – will ignore their own ability to act in self-preservation. Renton doesn’t turn Begbie in because he doesn’t think he can. The law has been Renton’s enemy for so long that he would rather risk his own safety and try to appease a psychopath (and I don’t use that term lightly. It’s what Begbie is) than admit weakness to anyone, including himself.

The true tragedy of Trainspotting, arguably more tragic than even what happens to Baby Dawn, is that no evidence is presented that Renton will ever change. He claims in the closing monologue that he is “choosing life”, but looking at his actions, he is using the exact same strategy he used at the start of the film and continues to use throughout: escape. There may not be cops on his tail and he may not be running, but whether or not an escape is successful doesn’t change the nature of the act. Renton learns nothing in the film about how to do anything but escape; the rehab clinic gives him methadone, but there are no scenes or referencing dialogue to indicate that anyone there, or anywhere else, has presented Renton with any other strategies or coping mechanisms. My hypothesis is that as soon as Renton is presented with a stumbling block in his path to establishing his new life wherever, he will blow his score money on enough heroin to nail himself into a coffin. And I challenge the creators of Trainspotting, all the way back to Irvine Welsh, to show me another end to this character. Please. Enough tragedy already.

Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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