50/50 Review #27: Trainspotting.

I have a kinda funny background with this movie. When I was in my early teens or so, I had somehow heard of this movie--don't remember when or how, but I did. But I had somehow also mixed up what it was actually about with another movie. And I tried to find a copy of it. Back in those days we had these things called "Hollywood Video" and "Blockbuster" where you could go inside a shop and rent VHS tapes. Crazy concepts, I know. But nobody had copies of it... which was probably in my best interest, retrospectively. Now Dylan, who suggested this, told me that he figures, at best, I'll respect it--but he'll be damn surprised if I actually love it. Let's see if he's right, shall we?

The film follows Renton (Ewan McGregor), a heroin junkie who is trying to clean up. But he's finding quite a bit of difficult seeing that, you know, it's addictive and whatnot. But also his friends--including Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Tommy (Kevin McKidd), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle)--are really holding him back. The film also marks the screen debut of Kelly Macdonald, who holds one of the most interesting characters in the film... which I'll get to shortly.

So did I love it? The first 30 minutes, yes. The rest... no, but I still really liked it. It really comes down to balancing style and substance and trying to find a good balance while not abusing either (if you didn't catch it, I just made a substance abuse joke in a review of a drug movie... you can applaude me now). This marks my fifth Danny Boyle film, and I can say it's definitely a Boyle film in all positives and negatives that you can take that.

Let's start with the negatives. Danny Boyle tends to have narratively imbalanced films. This is even true of one of my all-time favorite films, 28 Days Later..., which completely shifts gears in its third act, but still works. Sunshine also has a third act shift, which doesn't really work much at all. This isn't quite a third act shift here, but rather a continual shift throughout. The first 30 minutes is a great dark comedy. And then the scene where Allison goes around screaming happens, and we have our first shift. It goes from dark comedy to just dark. Then from this extreme drama it turns horrific with the withdrawal scene and that freakin' baby on the ceiling. Then it's a mix of dark comedy and upsetting drama again, this time focusing more on crime. And I think a lot of this might have worked a little better had there been more of an actual story. There was definitely a plot, but no real cohesive story. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact that the film is based on a novel made up of short stories, and that's what the film comes off exactly like: a collection of short stories vaguely connected together on film, all with different tones and intentions.

This is most clear in the character of Diane, played magnificently by Kelly Macdonald. The first time Renton gets off drugs, he goes to a club with his friends with the idea of hooking up. This is where he meets Diane. But after having sex with her and sleeping over, he discovers in the morning that she's actually a 14-year-old schoolgirl, and he just had illegal relations with a minor. He tries to leave, by Diane blackmails him into seeing her again. And... nothing ever comes from this. We see his guilt in the big withdrawal scene, but she never really comes back into the movie, nor does the blackmail ever come to be any kind of important. And that's really a shame, because that was one of the most interesting story lines to me.

On the upside, Danny Boyle does a lot of things right, particularly in the style departement. First off, this film is gorgeous to look at (despite the grime). The camera angles, the use of red, the toilet scene--oh, the toilet scene. If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, I don't want to spoil it for you. But it's a purposefully trippy moment filled with head-tilting wonder and some fantastic visuals. Also, every now and then, Boyle decides to make stylistic use of words and subtitles. Again, the beginning of the toilet scene, or just putting subtitles in one of the club scenes. And don't forget the music, which is quite fitting all around.

The best thing is the use of voice over. There's actually very little dialogue in the movie, at least in comparison to most films. The majority of the film is in voice-over narration by Ewan McGregor. And it's written particularly well and delivered even more solidly. It's what really holds the entire thing together, and I do admit that I'm a fan of voice-over narration if it's done well--and by done well, I usually mean it's either witty or meta (like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) or is otherwise amazingly well written in monologue-type format, such as this.

The acting is top notch all around. I barely recognized Robert Carlyle, who was just insane in this role. I think it was the mustache. But just as a random note, there are three future-Potter actors in this: Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle in HP2 and HP4), Peter Mullen (Yaxley in HP7.1), and, of course, Kelly Macdonald (Grey Lady/Helena Ravenclaw in HP7.2). That's about all I had for that. I just like pointing Harry Potter-related things out, especially since I can find nothing bad or otherwise interesting to say about the acting in this film outside of how spot on it was.

In the end, I do quite respect what this movie is and/or does. But at the same time, while I might not have absolutely loved the entire thing, I still really liked it. I mentioned earlier how Boyle tends to have uneven narratives, but I want to clarify that's not always to a detriment. It's just that this was very clearly a set of short stories attempting to be linked together into one complete story. And to me, it struggled to find cohesiveness. It was still pretty dang interesting, though, and the style of it is definitely what won me over. And I'm still glad I didn't see this when I was barely pubescent, as I can almost assure you I wouldn't have liked it--not to mention potential scarring (that damn baby...). But my taste is a bit better now... clearly.

A Keanu 'Whoa'


  1. I'm glad that you came away liking it as much as you did. I don't think I'm seeing through any kind of nostalgia-tinted glasses on this one - it's just a damn fine movie (and why would I be nostalgic towards heroin-addicted Scots?). The opening montage grips you from the start and never really lets go. Can't say that I've ever felt the tone was uneven, though - after all, these are junkies. There are bound to be high and low times, and the film really runs the gamut there. Moreover, it feels genuine to how life might really be for them. Still, I suppose I can see how some of it might come off as a bit episodic.

    We get a little bit of Diane later (the letter writing), but her absence in the third act (or so) never bothered me; after all, this isn't a love story in the slightest.

    Did you find that you barely recognized McGregor?

    1. I definitely see what you're saying about highs and lows. It could also be, as I discovered during the 60/60 last year, that for some reason I tend to have a hard time getting into movies about drugs (with a couple exceptions). I definitely got into this one, but it was definitely more for the writing, style, and a couple characters rather than the drug themes and what came of it.

      As for Diane, I wasn't necessarily looking for a love story... but just more of her little subplot. It builds the foundation to have further shit happen to Ewan McGregor with this underage sex and blackmail thing... and nothing ever comes from it. The film just kinda drops it. Why even bother saying you're gonna force him to see you again if we never see it happen?

      I definitely recognized McGregor as the person, but not the actor. Such a different role and style for him that he went to different places I'd never seen from him. And he also didn't give the toothy smile once.

  2. Diane does get lost here--I wondered what she was doing in the film by the end because I figured she'd be much more prominent. Oh well.

    I'd always been told that this film was funny, and while there are definitely parts of it that are, this is in no way a comedy. I still liked it, but my expectations and reality were very different.

    Also, come read this because you're getting an awesome award for awesomeness.



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