|Scene from Trainspotting|
There are few opening scenes in 90's cinema with the electricity and iconography of director Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. Without notice, Renton (Ewan McGregor) is running from police as the heavy drums of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" accompanies a mantra on how to live a good life. It's something that since has been emblazoned on posters without recognition that the three minute scene's voice over monologue is a subversion. Renton is one of those who didn't get his life together. Instead, he chose drugs. Not because it makes him feel sad, but elated. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Boyle's adaptation of Irvine Welsh's phenomenal book of the same name took audiences through the world of Scottish junkies that helped to popularize Britpop and electronica while making drugs seem like both the greatest thing in the world, and the absolute worst. Trainspotting is a furious ball of doped-out energy that it creates a natural high that holds up after 20 years.
While Boyle may be better known today, especially for his Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, he was an entirely different story in 1996. Coming off of his directorial debut Shallow Grave, he sought to leave a mark on cinema that was defiantly authentic. There was no better source material to do this than with Welsh's story about a group of junkies that go about life trying to get high, or get cleaned up. It depended on the mood of the day. Along with introducing actress Kelly MacDonald and making McGregor a popular actor, the film is deceptively simple, almost serving as a hang out movie for a deeply accented cast where the actions don't mean as much as the people forced to do them.
What sets the film apart from other iconic drug-centric movies like Requiem for a Dream four years later is that it was unapologetic. These were characters who knew that they had a problem, but were not necessarily confined to being the one dimensional victim. Those that did drugs found solace in it, and the temptation to go back also played simultaneously. It was a film about the highs and lows, even featuring an iconic head turning moment. Never did it create a sympathetic moment strung together by classical strings. It preferred electronica and the dizzying direction of Boyle to turn a drug trip into a nightmare so visceral that it almost makes the audience sober. This is of course after scenes in which characters dive into dirty toilets and show up for interviews blitzed out of their minds. It's a world that treats drug use as something other than a crutch.
It does help that at the center is a clever bunch of characters. There's Renton, Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Franco (Robert Carlyle), and Tommy (Kevin McKidd). Along with Diane (MacDonald), the film follows the group through 1980's Edinburgh in an economically depressed time. It does help that Scotland is an inherently beautiful landscape that compliments cinematography in a way to combat the dark subject matter. While the style is a key component to why the film works, it's the nonsensical moments that make things chug along. There's conversation about which is the best James Bond movie. There's scouting local areas while having mundane conversations. It is a world that feels lived in, and it does so without ever losing muster.
It was so good that it received a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination and lead Boyle to bigger things, including the McGregor/Cameron Diaz misfire A Life Less Ordinary. The film quickly gained a cult status, becoming one of Britain's most acclaimed films of the decade. Pop culture would even reference is decades on, most notably in Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz, where a simple cat and mouse chase scene reenacts the famous Trainspotting opening almost shot for shot. It also is Welsh's most successful adaptation, as films like The Acid House, Ecstasy, and Filth have failed to capture the magic that the delirious group of junkies has. However, it has inspired Welsh to write both a sequel ("Porno") and prequel ("Skag Boys"), thus creating one of the most unlikely franchises. While it had been hinted at for years, next year marks the long anticipated sequel T2: Trainspotting 2, which also features most of the original cast in tow.
While stoner comedies have made drugs look cooler, Trainspotting has depicted substance abuse the best. It gives the viewer a blissful high that results in brilliant, dizzying images that make an unpleasant subject seem so appealing. It also features some of the most striking and haunting imagery of the other side - where drugs stop being fun and become something totally unwholesome. It's a dark comedy that doesn't pull punches, instead allowing random conversations to hold deeper meaning without saying much of anything. Even if they get a pass for having endearing Scottish accents, it's still a work that showed the vibrant energy of what cinema could be. It has remained so integral that in 2012, "Lust for Life" was included in a montage of Britain's most iconic films - which happened to also feature Trainspotting briefly. Of course, Boyle directed the ceremony, but that also just shows how far he's come since 1996. One can only hope that the future of Renton and the boys is in good hands.