Trainspotting (1996)

Spoiler Alert: The ending is discussed at length.

Drugs are bad for you. It’s a reductionist view that could be applied to almost every film about drugs, especially the more dramatic ones that exist outside the crime genre. However, such a simplistic perspective cuts out the complexity and nuance of the lives of the fictional characters portrayed in films. And while Trainspotting might have its shares of simplicities, the portrayal of drug usage is not one of them.

Renton (Ewan McGregor) is just another druggie going through his life from fix to fix. He knows he’s at the bottom rung of life but finds solace in the high. Why worry about all of life’s problems when you can escape it all with a single injection? That’s the out, the hook, the reason behind his drive to do drugs. It would be easy to judge druggies if there wasn’t some to Renton’s way of coping with life.

After all, pleasure is a driving force of humanity. It can often be the defining factor in decision making, cause people to live a radical and dangerous lifestyle. In Renton’s world drugs might be the only pleasure. Sure, there’s sex, but as he puts, drugs provide a better orgasm by one-hundredfold. Maybe he needs such a powerful source of pleasure to wash away the horrible elements of his life.

But, ironically, that world is brought about through the drugs. The degradation of his lifestyle and behavior is a result of the drugs, but the drugs are an escape from that degradation. As the film develops, and more of the lives of these people unfold, it becomes clear they had a choice, a life that isn’t bad, one that might have its own set of pleasures and benefits.

It’s this life that end up bearing back down on Renton, after a series of devolving events, his parents lock him in a room and rehabilitate him. It’s this moment that provides one of the many visually compelling sequence: a plethora of impossible and unworldly images that haunt him, allowing director Danny Boyle to have some fun with the images.

But these images are more than just a visual playground, they’re manifestations of the highs and lows of drug life. Probably the most iconic, and repulsive, image in the film is of Renton’s legs sticking out of a toilet as he tries to grab the drugs he accidently dropped. It’s revolting, but what awaits him on the other side is euphoric. It’s a brilliant metaphor of drug life and the ups and downs of the lifestyle.

Where the film becomes a bit too trite is in the unwavering optimism that permeates the film. Make no mistake, Danny Boyle pulls no punches in portraying the lifestyle of the druggies, but he whitewashes it with this bizarre, upbeat feeling that makes the film a lot safer to watch. The ending, in particular, feels like an easy out and a good way to keep audience members from leaving on a big downer.

It’s not that this moment rings false as much as it seems just too convenient. Here’s a guy who has so much going against him, so many things bearing down on his life and the film simply suggests that, given the right opportunity, he’ll break free and make his way out. Maybe he’ll relapse, but the voiceover seems to reinforce that this is a clean break, for good, which also breaks a lot of the complexities of the film, making resolution more a whim of luck rather than a conscious effort on the hero’s part.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing