Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Trainspotting -- lifestyle choices

Director: Danny Boyle, 1996.

When I was in college I had a friend who knew all the train engines of Great Britain, such as the 1010 Western Campaigner. His pastime was trainspotting. But the trainspotting of this movie has nothing to do with that harmless hobby. The title actually refers to a scene in the book by Irvine Welsh that does not appear in the film. However, the term also refers to the shooting up of heroin, and is so called because of the "train-track-like" marks in the veins and also the locomotive-like hit of the heroin as it enters the blood-stream.

Boyle set his second film in the underbelly of working-class Edinburgh and gives this a distinctively British feel. Harrowing at times, hilarious at others, this is a film lauded as one of the all-time best British films; yet it requires an iron stomach since it is tough to watch.

Reunited with Ewan McGregor, Boyle builds Trainspotting around McGregor's character of Renton, the antihero. With strong Scottish brogues throughout it is often hard to decipher what is being said . . . except for the cussing, which is ubiquitous. Although it captures the essence of the subculture, it is grinding, as is the graphic portrayal of drug-use. some movies gloss over the impact of drug use and abuse, focusing on the seductive appeal to users, Trainspotting brings a gritty realistic treatment to this topic. Renton and his friends, Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), are hard-core heroin addicts who cannot hold down jobs. They are joined by Tommy (Kevin McKidd), a fitness freak who avoids drugs and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a hard-man who does people not drugs, fighting and stabbing for fun in pubs. Living in poverty and squalor, this is the story of the degeneration of these relationships; it is the story of friendships destroyed by drugs.

As it starts, Renton gives an extended voice-over narration (minus the swearing):

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. . . . Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?
So, at the very outset, the setup is clear. There are two choices in life: Life and Heroin. Life, here, stands for the ordinary life of boredom and routine. It is the establishment. It is mind-numbing and spirit-crushing. To choose life is to give in to the man, to be like one of the humans in The Matrix, crushed and living aimless and inevitable lives; it is to be like cows destined for the slaughterhouse. On the other hand, Heroin stands for a life of excitement and ecstasy. It is anti-establishment. It is subversive and counter-cultural. It is authentic and individual. To choose heroin is to be yourself, living how you want, not accepting the destiny defined by society but paving your own way. It is mind-expanding and spirit-lifting . . . at least while the drug rushes through the veins. Once it is done, it is a different matter. has made his choice. His lifestyle is care-free, one of drugs, casual sex, drinking, raves, and he has no responsibilities. With no job, he and his friends steal, lie, cheat or do anything to get the money to buy more drugs for their next fix and the ensuing high. All is going "well" until during one of their extended highs the baby of one of the girlfriends dies in his crib. They arouse from their drug-induced stupor to this dreadful discovery. And their reaction: cook up another shot to take away the pain.

When Renton's parents intervene to help him come off heroin cold turkey, locking him in his room, Boyle gives a painfully clear picture of withdrawal. With surreal visions of friends giving counsel and a baby crawling across the screen, Renton's room feels like a cell in a psychiatric ward. But he somehow comes clean. And decides to move to London, away from his no-good friends.

You can run, but you can't hide, as they say. And first Begbie, a fugutive needing a hiding place, finds him and moves in. Then Sick Boy comes south with a plan for a drug scam. Finally, Spud joins them all. Of course, Renton gets caught up, once again, in the heroin lifestyle, and falls of the wagon. balances the depressing picture of this empty life with surreal humor. This humor is simultaneously both disgusting and funny. It is literally toilet humor.

One of the underlying themes of Trainspotting is the poverty that is endemic in urban centers like Edinburgh. And with such poverty comes a sense of hopelessness. It is tough for those caught in this trap to see a way out. And without hope, some gravitate to the easy way out, a false hope from pharmaceuticals. But there is hope, even for the most hopeless in the worst situations. That hope is found in Jesus (Col. 1:27). He can offer life and hope to those who will come to him and cling to him. He does not promise to magically make everything right in this life, though he will one day. He does promise to make it easier to live in the here and now while waiting for the future hope.

Trainspotting shows how the drug-using lifestyle leads not to hope and a beautiful future, but to death and a dead-end future. As Renton lies to those around him, to his friends, to his parents, and even to himself, he still thinks he is in control of his habit. He still thinks he can do just one more fix with no ill effect. But his choice of Heroin has enormous impact on those around him. It leads to prison for one friend, to addiction and death for another, to death of a baby for a third. Here is not life; here is deceit, decay, disintegration and death.

Yet, Trainspotting ends with a ray of hope, an ambiguous vision of what might be. It raises a question of whether rehabilitation is possible for the deeply addicted user. Though it appears that recidivism is almost certain, there is a chance that reform may remain. After the drug deal, where Hugo from Shallow Grave shows up, Renton walks away with a bag-load of money. Then, narrating the last lines, he returns to the themes of the prolog, the theme of "choice." Repeating the monolog, almost word for word, he ends with, "The truth is that I'm a bad person. But, that's gonna change -- I'm going to change. This is the last of that sort of thing. Now I'm cleaning up and I'm moving on, going straight and choosing life. I'm looking forward to it already. I'm going to be just like you." He has it right, that he is a bad person. That's true from the movie and ethically. Will he change? The cynic would answer no, he has tried and failed before; he will fail again. The optimist would answer yes, he is away from his friends who would suck him back into the life he is leaving; with these influences removed he will be able to suceed this time. The realist recognizes that life is ambiguous. There is always hope. There is always a second chance.

Although it may seem strange, Renton is in some ways like Jesus. Renton was railing against the authorities, seeking an alternative way to live. But the dichotomy he proposes is a false dichotomy. The choice we face is not between Life as defined in Trainspotting and Heroin. It is not between conventional routine and boredom or anti-establishment self-centered indulgence, whether in drugs or other forms of escapism. No, there is a third choice. Jesus gives us this option. Jesus was a counter-cultural revolutionary himself. He preached a subversive message, and its core content is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). His offer is one that is anti-establishment but it is focused on selfless giving. We don't have to settle for the consumeristic choice of the TV, the large house, the cars, the toys, the things. He offers a life that transcends this by looking outward and upward rather than inward.

Where Shallow Grave was a superficial black comedy-thriller about degeneration of relationships centered on stolen money, Trainspotting is a deeper black comedy about the degeneration of relationships centered on the deadly destructiveness of drug use. It is a hard pill to swallow, but it offers some insight into the heroin lifestyle and a hope of a redemptive journey. We can and must choose life. But what kind of "life" will you choose?

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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