Movie Review – T2 Trainspotting
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Ewan McGregor, John Lee Miller, Ewan Bremner and Robert Carlyle
Note: This post contains adult language appropriate to the subject matter, but which may offend some readers.
Over two decades after its release, Danny Boyle’s, Trainspotting, remains the most honest portrayal of drug addiction ever put on film. Unlike the simple-minded, morality play Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s After School Special with dildos, Trainspotting revealed both the ecstatic allure and harrowing squalor of the fabled, but destructive effects of heroin abuse. With jet-black humor and seemingly endless cinematic imagination, the film cast a balanced and unblinking eye on its story of four addicted Scottish delinquents: Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (John Lee Miller), Spud (Ewan Bremner) and the violent sociopath Begbie (Robert Carlyle). Some critics claimed the film romanticized drug use, an argument I found incredulous at the time, given the film’s abundance of unpleasant imagery, from that dirty, gutted squatter apartment, to those icky soiled bedsheets, that nasty toilet swim and a certain dead baby.
Looking back all these years later, I still reject that argument. But I must admit those four lads from Edinburgh living their untethered lifestyle on the fringes of society held an undeniable attraction for me. I felt I knew them. While I wasn’t a heroin addict, I was just beginning to dabble with crack cocaine, the beginnings of what, half a decade later, would become a major addiction. In my mid-30’s and with an undeniable predilection for bad-boy types, I had already began associating with disassociated drug addicts. The idea of lost souls who rejected, or were unable to obtain, the suburban ideal and dealt with it through promiscuous sex and excessive drug use, was something I could relate to. I wanted to be there in that squalid Edinburgh apartment with those crazy guys and their sexy leather clad “Mother Superior,” kissing, fucking, shooting up and passing out on the carpet.
Most of my peers who grew up beside me in the wealthy suburbs of Johnson County, Kansas would likely have been repelled by that scene and no doubt, the film itself. They were busy building careers and chasing the American dream. But I never bought into what I saw as a false and empty suburban ethic – the idea that the acquisition of material goods was the purpose of life, that you weren’t a “success” if you weren’t upwardly mobile, that the poor were poor, not because of a rigged system, but because they were lazy. And besides, I didn’t need all that career-minded crap. I was going to be a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.
“Choose life,” Renton says in the iconic opening of that first film, riffing on a famous British anti-drug ad campaign “Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, choose cars, compact disc players…choose fixed interest mortgage payments…” But he wasn’t just parodying the material culture he was supposed to be embracing because he rejected it, but because he had no choice. “I chose not to choose life,” he concluded, “and the reasons?… Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin.”
Twenty years later, in T2 Trainspotting, Boyle’s long-awaited sequel to what is now considered a cult classic, Renton is no longer obsessed with heroin, nor is the film itself. But the four are still criminals. Renton seems to have done well, but we sense that his story about a failed marriage and successful career is a deception, Sick-boy, now called Simon, is now a low-life blackmailer who shovels cocaine up his nose like Al Pacino’s Scarface, Spud is still a junkie and suicidal, and Begbie, ever the violent nut-job, is appropriately lodged in prison. The film’s tone here is comic, but two decades on, these characters have lost much of their appeal. Youthful beauty and exuberance go a long way in making bad behavior entertaining, in the movies at least. But when the same behavior comes from leather faced 40-somethings it’s decidedly less endearing. While there are scenes of wistful remembrance and regrets for the past and some fuzzy feel-good sentiments near the end, they seem forced and out of place, as if the filmmakers felt the need to apologize for all the characters’ previous despicable acts, to show us that these fellows really aren’t that bad. But in the end, you can’t escape the fact that these guys were, are, and probably always will be, losers.
All of which is not to say that T2 Trainspotting isn’t entertaining. The dark, gross-out humor remains intact. There’s raunchy (and funny) sex, wild scams (including a genuinely funny caper sequence inside an anti-Catholic, protestant bar), the old camaraderie, moments of genuine suspense and a few hallucinatory drug sequences thrown in for old-time’s sake. And it’s directed with the same flamboyant invention that made the original film so damned addictive. Subtitles dance around the screen like fireflies, strange tilted camera angles recall the old Batman television series, and haunting clips from the first film are superimposed over new footage so that they seem like ghosts. But T2 Trainspotting’s attempt at recreating the original film’s hip and cynical joyride through antisocial behavior is ultimately sad and pathetic.
Sometimes, maybe always, it’s impossible to judge a movie objectively. Movies are inherently personal. How they are perceived is subject to the whims, moods, and experiences of the individual viewer. Some movies conjure up happy memories that incline you to a more generous disposition than they deserve. Others may awaken long suppressed fantasies waiting to be rediscovered. Still others may strike a raw nerve that reminds you of your own failures and shortcomings. Maybe if I’d led a different life, I might have been more receptive to the carelessly brutal “charms” of a movie about middle-aged fuckups who’ve squandered away their lives on drugs and missed opportunities. Maybe not.
Near the end of T2 Trainspotting, when Renton updates his Choose Life monologue with a social networking twist (“Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares”), it’s clear that this time it’s not because heroin has made him helpless to pursue these things but because he finally gets that “choosing life,” or at least the shallow understanding of it that modern society seems intent on forcing down our throats, will not making him any happier. Ten years free from my own hard drug addiction, I also understand this. Some of us can never be happy living the consumer-based, materialistic drone-life everyone tells us we are supposed to desire.
Choose life. Choose meaningless sobriety. Choose antiquated goals of being a serious writer. Choose WordPress blogs. Choose writing weekly movie reviews. Choose blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.