Typically, these Opening Statements have been presented by one of our writers who personally selected that week’s film out of deep cinematic love. This week is a bit different. With the unasked-for sequel/reunion to Trainspotting now in limited theatrical release [terrible title and all], it seemed like a perfect time to revisit the original and investigate if it still has a definitive place in our film culture. It also selfishly gives me an excuse [as if I really need one] to revisit Danny Boyle’s cultish breakout, as it is a film I know I had previously seen, but remember so thinly—baby on the ceiling aside, you try to forget that image.

It’s pretty tough to describe exactly what Trainspotting is. I mean, obviously, it depicts the lives of a group of young heroin addicts and they romp around Scotland, but it is so fast and loose that it hardly has any structure. There’s a lot of vamping and music-set montages, punctuated by big, gross, crazy moments. This episodic nature results in how I remembered [or misremembered] the film years after seeing it. The worst toilet in Scotland, the various high freakouts and fever dreams, etc. all rise above the connective plot and characters once there’s distance. That isn’t to say Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Diane, and the rest of ‘em aren’t full characters by the end, but the film certainly runs hot and cold throughout—especially cold through most of the third act, which slogs a bit for me.

Fortunately, Danny Boyle is as good of a director working who can handle this sort of pace and kineticism. In only his second feature, Boyle already has a signature style, even if Trainspotting is shaggier than his later work. His typical hyper editing hasn’t been perfected here [at least not to the level of future films like 127 Hours or Slumdog Millionaire], but Trainspotting still really moves—it is barely 90 minutes and it runs even quicker. 

Trainspotting is a comedy, but probably the most depressing comedy ever. Admittedly, the most effective humor in the film falls under “13-year-old boy humor” with shit and gross stuff, but it is funny nonetheless. Just as you fully get into the group’s rhythms [I don’t know if you can ever really “like” these characters, but when they are on top, they are undoubtedly cool], the film pulls out the rug, starting with the death of Baby Dawn through Renton’s traumatic cold turkey recovery. I’m not sure if takes its drug use completely seriously and yet it is a thoroughly cautionary tale. Honestly, I wouldn’t question anyone who would consider Trainspotting a “one-timer” despite its snappier features. 

Maybe the most delightful aspect of rewatching the film is seeing the cast. They aren’t all exactly future all-stars, but the film is filled with before-their-prime character actors that I greatly enjoy. Ewan McGregor is such a dad now that seeing him as Renton again is like coming across the box of photos from your parents’ rebellious hippie days at the height of the sexual revolution [purely hypothetical]. This is the major reason I’m interested in seeing T2 Trainspotting—not necessarily that I’m interested in seeing these characters 20+ years later, but seeing these actors portraying these characters again 20+ years later. It might be a slight distinction, but it makes sense to me, at least. McGregor is incredible here, completely untamed, and seeing Trainspotting is like discovering his talents all over again. Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Shirley Henderson, and especially Kelly Macdonald all leave their mark.

Trainspotting may be an ultimate 90s Miramax-era indie, completely encapsulating the energy of the time, but it still works today. Yeah, it’s shaggy and uneven, but the highs are incredibly high. The narrative could definitely be more refined, but the big moments provide more than enough energy, style, and vision. The characters are more beloved than they are deeply written, but the young ensemble cast is excellent. With all that, Trainspotting is a bit of a mixed bag looking back with fresh eyes 21 years later. And still, it remains a wonderful time capsule to one of the most exciting times in independent film and remains a shining example of what a young filmmaker with a distinct vision can do in an environment that lets them see it through.

Here's what we'll have in our look back at Trainspotting this week:

  • The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 13
  • Related Review of sequel T2 Trainspotting
  • A look at how the film was seminal in inspiring budding cinephiles of the '90s
  • A very cautious First Viewing on the nature of drug films
  • And more!