Review Podcast Rating

Trainspotting (1996)

The worst toilet in Scotland

Every film viewer has their biases. Genres or story beats or filmmakers they feel particularly strongly about. With this film you encounter a few of my biases.

First, I dislike most “transgressive cinema.” Depravity is like spiciness in food: In small and occasionally moderate amounts, it can bring out the flavor of your story. At aggressive levels, it just becomes unpleasant and, at extreme levels, downright painful. I don’t understand why people intentionally put themselves through the experiences of enduring high-dosage levels of it.

And Trainspotting is not only filled with horrible, depressing plot turns shown in vivid color, but it revels in the shit. It strives to shock you with the bad decisions made and bad consequences suffered by its characters in their heroin addiction: Dying babies and sticking baggies up your butt and affairs with high schoolers and perishing from brain poisoning spread by cat feces. (Sorry for the spoilers.)

To Trainspotting’s credit, there’s a very clear purpose to this: Director Danny Boyle and his team are trying to convey that heroin addiction is miserable and life-ruining (and they succeed in this). Further to the film’s credit, it does a better job than any other movie I’ve ever seen (not that I seek these kinds of movies out) of blending both the horrible suffering and the euphoric escape of hard drug addiction.

Still sucks to watch! The point could’ve been made in a 20 minute PSA just as well. That brings me to my next complaint, I suppose, which is that this is a damn repetitive movie. Again, there’s some thematic purpose: Addiction is not an easy affliction to break. But the cycle of indulge-regret-reform-relapse gets old. Did we really need three or four repetitions? What a slog.

The final 20 minutes do indeed drop the addiction drama drudge in favor of a bizarre crime story that’s almost a heist: A drug deal that’s weirdly underdeveloped and consequence-free in stark contrast to the miserable things that happen throughout the rest of the movie. The conclusion shows us Rent Boy (Ewan McGregor) rejecting the cycle, inexplicably escaping the clutches of addiction, but it’s phoned in.

The next one of my biases that Trainspotting crashes right into is my disdain for Danny Boyle as a director. I don’t often use the term “pretentious” when it comes to filmmaking, but that’s the word that pops into my head for Boyle. Too often he uses flashiness for the hell of it, to draw attention to the brilliance of his own directing rather than for a narrative purpose. To be fair to Doyle, some of his flourishes land — I’ve come around on “the worst toilet in Scotland” scene, or at least its punchline. But more often, my reaction is an eye roll. For all the love Trainspotting gets as “fun” and “electric,” I get a lot of second-hand embarrassment at Boyle’s gee-whiz camera movements and visual ideas. (Boyle has certainly made films I like, but more often in spite of his direction rather than because of it.)

For years if you had asked my least favorite film, I would have said Trainspotting. It’s still the movie that makes me angriest relative to its broader reputation in cinema. My heart wants to slap the lowest possible rating on this movie out of spite, but doing so would be intellectually dishonest. It is undeniably well-constructed in most ways, occasionally even inspired: McGregor has a very stylish, appealing presence on screen (I wish I could pull off a buzz cut like that). The intense Scottishness of it all adds some flavor. And, despite my Boyle grievances, it overall has a compelling look and is briskly edited.

And so I must temper my hatred for this dollar-store Tarantino, gross-out, bad-boy, edgelord bullshit. At least a little.

Is It Good?

Not Very Good (3/8)

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5 replies on “Trainspotting (1996)”

Well, I’m glad you don’t like it because nothing should be universally beloved, but hard disagree. Though to get to why I like it I’d have to use phrases like “it pulses with a life force, even or especially the shitty parts,” or something equally pretentious. McGregor’s great.

I have real estate on this island too.

The main reason is baked into the movie’s foundation, its raison d’etre. As you write, “they’re trying to convey that heroin addiction is miserable and life-ruining.” First of all… no kidding. Second, nothing about that implies an entertaining story to me.

We’ll have a nice beach on our island though. Maybe open up an oceanfront bar. No drugs allowed.

“It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low! The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, pathetic, servile trash that was ever shat out on civilisation! Some people hate the English: I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, were COLONISED by wankers. Couldn’t even find a decent culture to be colonised BY.”

Reciting that speech from memory was my party trick when I was visiting the States.

I agree, to some extent, that Trainspotting belongs in the same late-90s category of edgy-for-the-sake-of-edgy cinema, coming off the back of Tarantino. But I always felt there was something about it that spoke to a particular, authentically Scottish self-loathing; like, “OK, we’re politically irrelevant, so we might as well own our identity as alcoholic, drug-addled reprobates.”

Curiously, it came out just one year before the institution of Scottish Parliament was ratified.

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