Why It Works: Trainspotting
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
Talk of a sequel to TRAINSPOTTING has been floating around the industry for at least five years, but Danny Boyle's ever increasing workload and the busy careers of the cast have impeded its development thus far. Last week, however, Boyle stated he is hopeful his next film will in fact be a sequel to the 1996 classic. We'll hopefully have some good news for you after STEVE JOBS hits theaters next month, but in the meantime, let's take a look at how a low-budget film about Scottish, football-loving heroin addicts became such a loved and influential film. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
Characters with a vice are always an intersting brood. On one hand, you might feel sorry and hope to see them better themselves, but on the other, you might despise what they do and feel completely unsympathetic as a result. For starters, the casting of Ewan McGregor in this film is truly inspired. McGregor walks the line between drug-addled thug and total charmer beautifully. It also helps that the horror of the characters' addicition doesn't come into play early on. We just see some chaps talking about Sean Connery and generally enjoying themselves at first (who happen to also be shooting up in the process). More importantly than any of this, though, is the fact that Mark makes a decision to quit only five minutes into the film. Already, we have a reason to root for him, and so the ebb and flow of TRAINSPOTTING begins.
Hey, look, a train!
WHY WE CARE:
Shockingly, TRAINSPOTTING isn't a movie where the protagonist cleans up his act right away and then is totally fine for the next ninety minutes. That said, there really isn't much of a plot here. In the same way the throughline of a zombie film or a disaster movie is simply surivial of the threat, TRAINSPOTTING is the story of Mark Renton vs. addiction. We like Mark so much that it is vicerally painful to watch each time he goes under again. While Mark is solely to blame for his actions, his friends certainly don't help the situation. The angry and exploitative nature of Sick Boy and Begbie shows the group's willingness to turn on each other, and seeing Tommy get pulled in by the drug is so much worse than watching characters who are used to it. Arguably, the most heartbreaking moment of the film is not when Allison's baby dies, but immediately afterward, when Sick Boy desperately asks Mark to say something, and Mark can only respond with, "I'm cooking up."
What's a drug movie without a good baby on the ceiling scene?
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
A big problem with many slice of life, non-plot driven movies is the lack of a real ending. I remember loving LOST IN TRANSLATION until the credits rolled and I realized that was the entire movie. TRAINSPOTTING cleverly avoids this by inserting a big score at the end, followed by a very clear sense of the hero moving on to better things. Yes, Mark does a pretty messed up thing by screwing over his friends. "But Begbie, I couldn't give a shit about him. And Sick Boy, well he'd done the same to me, if he'd only thought of it first. And Spud, well okay, I felt sorry for Spud." Fortunately, Mark leaves a little something behind for Spud, so we're still left with that sense of a flawed but charming hero. Of course, it's absolutely not clear whether Mark's getaway will lead to a better life or just more of the same plus £20,000 (minus whatever he left Spud), but we're still happy to see him make a very clear decision about his lifestyle. Hopefully Boyle follows through with the sequel so we can see where exactly Rent Boy ended up.
"I'm cleaning up and I'm moving on, going straight and choosing life... I'm gonna be just like you."
WHY WE REMEMBER:
Okay, I've mostly focused on the pliot up until now, and that's all well and good, but as with most Danny Boyle films, there is so much going on here. For starters, this was only Boyle's second film (any SHALLOW GRAVE fans out there?), and the man was already a master. From color palette to cinematography to pacing to mood, almost every moment of TRAINSPOTTING is unique, memorable, and endlessly rewatchable. Next up is the music. The music which either was used in or inspired TRAINSPOTTING was so expansive, two volumes of the soundtrack were released... for a movie just over ninety minutes. As for casting, it's no coincidence that Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd, Ewan Bremner, and Kelly Macdonald all went on to substanital careers after this film. For as young as they were in 1996, they all deliver an excellent balance of realism, desperation, humor, sympathy, and charm. Finally, Irvine Welsh's original novel and John Hodge's adaptation join forces for sharp, entertaining dialogue and a story that says so much while doing so little. As with most of the Why It Works candidates, TRAINSPOTTING is the sum of not one but several impressive talents, and bringing them all back for another go round seems like a no-brainer. It's been nearly twenty years, Mr. Boyle; all we need is one final hit.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.