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'Trainspotting': A Wild Ride

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 26, 1996

"Trainspotting," the adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s cultish novel about Scottish heroin addicts, found a successful vein in Great Britain last year. Now that the movie’s crossed the Atlantic, it’s easy to see why. It propels us through the netherworld of smack dependence with such witty momentum, it becomes a high of its own. Without a doubt, this is the most provocative, enjoyable pop-cultural experience since "Pulp Fiction."

The movie (like Welsh’s equally striking book) tags at the heels of Edinburgh social dropouts Renton (Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), for whom getting off beats getting out. After all, there’s nothing outside their dingy flats but a dead economy, English imperialism and that nebulous MTV-capitalistic-industrial complex.

"People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death," says Renton, directly addressing his addiction in voice-over narration. "But what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. . . .‚. Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it. When you’re on junk you have only one worry: scoring."

„ Welsh’s book, full of slanguage so thick and obtuse it requires a "Clockwork Orange"-style glossary, is an almost plot-free scrapbook of anecdotes and darkly hilarious observations from many characters. The filmmakers (scriptwriter John Hodge, director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald) have transformed these multiple narratives into a hard-edged seriocomedy. The story, such as it is, follows Renton’s inconsistent attempts to kick his habit. During this time, Renton and his friends get into some bizarre, frequently amusing scrapes, from shoplifting to bar fights to bum deals.

There’s an irreverent verve to the movie, accentuated by rapid editing, wall-to-wall music and the extremely colorful language of its protagonists. (Picture the lads in "The Commitments" turned Scottish and gone very seriously to seed.) This upbeat manner allows the movie to tackle the most outrageous subjects and make them funny. (The term "trainspotting," which refers to the obsessive British habit of observing trains, isn’t particularly explained, nor equated with the similarly obsessive habit of heroin addiction.) In one surrealistic development, Renton, attempting to retrieve narcotic suppositories dropped into the most disgusting toilet in Scotland, is suddenly swallowed into the commode. As ambient music by Brian Eno plays on the soundtrack, he swims—naked and majestic—through a watery world to find those mislaid pills.

You’ll find no embedded public service announcements here. Drug use isn’t castigated, although Renton’s parents lock him in his bedroom at one point to prevent him from shooting up and the psychotic, hard-drinking Begbie chews out his druggie pals for not switching to liquor. "Trainspotting" isn’t ostensibly about drug addiction. It’s an inspired tribute to wasted youths, who are so traumatized by conventional society, they retreat into a risky ecstasy, whose side effects are AIDS, overdoses and imprisonment. And rather than falsely comforted with pat answers to the Big Subject, we’re left with powerful memories of Renton, Spud, Begbie and Sick Boy, grrreat characters all.

TRAINSPOTTING (Unrated) — Contains scenes of explicit heroin use, cloacal humor and relentless profanity. The Scottish accents and slang are occasionally daunting.

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