Retro Review: Choosing Life – Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” At 20



Danny Boyle’s iconic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s debut novel Trainspotting turned twenty this week – but in rewatching it now one discovers that it hasn’t aged a day. The story of a group of wayward lads in rough and tumble Edinburgh during the heroin epidemic of the early nineties remains a brilliant piece of filmmaking as fresh as anything released in this year. The melodic story progression, breathtaking performances, and gritty yet comedic tone have the same effect on me now at twenty-five as they did when I first saw the film at fifteen. A mix of Clockwork Orange, The Outsiders and Rebel Without A Cause, Trainspotting is a seminal entry in the canon of stories about maladjusted youth rebelling against forces they don’t quite understand.

Trainspotting is, first and foremost, a coming-of-age story. As evidenced by Renton’s juxtaposing monologues that bookend the film, his journey is one of learning how to feel comfortable in a society ostensibly governed by materialism. The topics of his monologues are things that can be acquired, or a by product of, acquiring wealth. In the beginning of the film money to Renton means more heroin. Everytime he comes across money or some other object of value he rushes over to Mother Superior, who performs a magic trick and turns those objects into smack. However, he ultimately realizes that his war on society is fruitless as he is not actually fighting for anything, rather he is running away from responsibility. Once he moves to London, Renton quickly adjusts to his new life and even professes a liking for the terms of “profit” and “loss”. It is also in London that Renton begins to define himself as an individual rather than through his relationship with his friends. It is no coincidence that this revelation comes in one of the capitals of modern day capitalism. The drug deal that Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Franco complete is symbolic of Renton’s arc. Instead of turning money into heroin, he is now turning the latter into the former. In his subsequent theft of the cash we see that Renton now understands the value of currency as something that can be used to acquire a certain type of lifestyle, one that is more stable than his past station.


When it was first released, Trainspotting was blasted by conservative enclaves for glamorizing drug use – then-U.S. Senator Bob Dole was one of the loudest voices in this cacophony of detractors (he later admitted that he hadn’t even seen the film). But Trainspotting endeavors to explain drug seeking behavior and not to pass judgement on those who use them. It is significant that just after the opening chase sequence, Renton decides to quit using. This renders the issue of heroin use as a battle and not a seduction, a crucial difference between Trainspotting and the way many other films centered around drug use portray the relationship between the drug and the user. The film depicts drug use as a symptom of larger psychological issues: Renton states, “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” He and his friends use heroin as a way to escape the external pressures of modern day society. Furthermore, the film depicts the hypocrisy over illegal drugs and their legal counterparts. After Renton is forced to enter into a government drug rehabilitation program he is given methadone as a way to wean off of heroin, “state sponsored addiction” as he puts it. However, instead of suppressing his addiction, the methadone only stokes Renton’s appetite for brown sugar.


In the telling of Trainspotting, Boyle proves himself a master of tone. The irrepressible humor of the Scots is on full display and serves to soften the otherwise jagged events of the story. Yet the film brings us crashing back to reality at the optimal moments. The death of Allison’s baby and the unflinching hold on its corpse impresses upon the viewer the true human cost of their lifestyle. The shaky camerawork and hallucinations convey the pain and anxiety Renton feels during his detox. This fluidity of tone is essential to the success of the film given the lack of a structured narrative. The story is told in movements rather than concrete acts and the tone is necessary is making the movements work.

Trainspotting remains a fresh and relatable film twenty years after its initial release. For all the pop culture references and the use of contemporary music, it is the film’s use of universal themes that fuels its longevity. Youth in rebellion has always been an important theme in Western art and its depiction of drug addiction will continue to resonate with audiences. Ahead of the 2017 release of Trainspotting 2, we can only hope that Boyle and co. can tap into the effervescent energy of its predecessor.  

Check out our Retro Review of Ghostbusters II.

 | Staff Writer

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