I had not seen Trainspotting until now because it’s a drug movie. Without watching, I could tell you that it probably says what drug movies tend to say: drugs are bad. “Danny Boyle,” I’d say in my mind, “the lesson won’t be necessary, as I already went through the DARE program in elementary school.” It wasn’t just that I imagined the director would play the role of a glorified school guidance counselor; he would most likely try to simultaneously borrow the aura of cool that drugs offer. Tedious.
The evidence for my dismissal of this subgenre is spotty. Yes, I felt a visceral hatred of Half Nelson. I had an apathetic experience with Requiem for a Dream. From there my proof thins out pretty dramatically. It includes falling asleep during Easy Rider in high school and a vague recollection of watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in college. And come to think of it, I’m not sure those are anti-drug movies. Nevertheless I’ve always felt I knew what Trainspotting was, even if it disguised itself in zany visuals and thick Scottish accents.
My two viewings this month confirmed many of my prejudices, but subverted some as well. But before tackling Trainspotting in relation to drugs, let’s just go through some visceral first impressions. Firstly, Ewan McGregor looks great in a halter top. Secondly, yes, the accents were hard. Finally, I got the strongest sense of the 90s I’ve had since high school. It wasn’t just the music or the colors; it was the self-destructive, apathetic version of coolness. I felt the sense of a bygone time that normally only a nostalgic smell can deliver.
Trainspotting did turn out to be about the dangers of doing drugs. But the surprise was that it was also about the dangers of not doing drugs. While heroin leads to crippling addiction, poor life choices, pathetic selflishness, and family tragedy, clean life is not much better. Job interviews and romantic relationships hold endless opportunities for failure. And what does success mean anyway? According to the characters, it means washing the car, eating junk food, and watching game shows.
I didn’t feel that the film’s dismissal of conventional values was earnest, however. Boyle seems to be matching his tone to the sneering petulance of his characters. In fact, this is the source of most of the film’s pleasures. My favorite moment was the introduction of London, filmed like a slyly sarcastic tourism commercial, with slick house music and quick shots of double-decker buses and the Queen’s guard. It’s a funny dismissal of tradition and capitalism, and perfectly distills the flashy emptiness that the characters suspect lies in material success.
The triumph of the movie is that it captures the worldview of young people who see heroin as the solution to their problems, and does so with a wink that renders the characters likable even as we marvel at their immaturity. In my eyes, that makes Trainspotting a worthwhile drug movie. But because Boyle narrows his perspectives to match his characters, any well-rounded viewer is bound to be left feeling some frustration with the film. Personally, the message I felt like yelling at the characters as the credits ran was, “Get a hobby!”
I had approached the film feeling like I already knew and understood the theme, and while the theme was not what I expected, I still walked away feeling unenlightened. But I learned that Trainspotting is not out to tell anyone how to live. The guidance counselor tells us to choose life, and Boyle is the kid pelting him with spitballs.