From the first percussive beats of Iggy Pop's thumping "Lust For Life" in the thrillingly overstuffed introduction of Trainspotting, it's clear this is a movie that will define an era. As the intoxicating characters stumble, vomit and punch their way through the ruthless drug scene of '90s Edinburgh, their nihilistic "choose life" outlook begins to make sense. While heroin — as both an antidote to and a cause of despair — might initially seem to be the dominant theme, Trainspotting is about so much more, and its sequel T2 hammers this point home.
Underneath the taut arm straps, bulging veins and cauterized spoons, Trainspotting is a bold examination of the everyday desperation and despondency unique to the underprivileged. The chaotic plot of the original film wends 20 years into the present in T2, to once more illustrate how the characters are prisoners of circumstances way bigger than addiction.
The Illusion Of Choice
In the first few minutes of #Trainspotting, Renton defiantly declares that he refuses to "choose life" and all of the mundane, consumer drivel that comes with it, but his future in T2 confirms that it was, in fact, life that didn't choose him.
Through the circumstances of their upbringing, Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and co. were almost destined to fall into the seductive oblivion of heroin. What the characters considered a bold, anti-establishment choice was just as commonplace as the mind-numbing conformity that is sneeringly derided in the famous opening monologue.
The characters' wild lives of sadomasochistic anarchy and the floral-printed banality of Renton's parents' existence both illustrate a lack of choice thanks to both the era and the limited opportunities of its inhabitants.
As Spud explains in #T2, his choices are restricted by the economically depressed Edinburgh of which he is a product. There is either coal or dole, or the opportunity to escape, whether into addiction or by somehow miraculously gathering the means to liberate yourself from your circumstances, à la Renton.
While initially the absolute rejection of societal norms and lack of personal regard seems insane in Trainspotting, T2 helps viewers understand how the youthful bravado of "choose life" was really an illusion constructed to help the characters feel like they actually had the luxury of choice. Or, in the words of Renton in Trainspotting, "Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?"
This examination of how, when people are largely ignored by society, they often turn their back on it entirely is the string that ties all the other themes of Trainspotting and T2 together in a pungent, vomit-sodden bouquet.
The Claustrophobia Of Poverty, Youth And Place
The lack of choices available to the Trainspotting crew fuels the feelings of claustrophobia and entrapment that are planted in the original movie before bursting to a head in T2.
As Renton returns to his narrow, oppressively patterned childhood bedroom, viewers are confronted with a feeling of claustrophobia; a feeling that Renton himself felt a need to escape from through music, weed and later, heroin.
Zoom out and the pinched and limiting qualities of Renton's childhood bedroom are just as present in Edinburgh the city. Trainspotting could not exist in another location as the circumstances driving the characters are unique to the area and Danny Boyle's movies are as much about Edinburgh, and working class urban Scotland as a whole, as they are about addiction.
The importance of place as a backdrop is highlighted when Renton and Sick Boy (or Mark and Simon, as they now prefer to be known), drop into a sectarian working men's club to exploit the clienteles' easy-to-guess pin numbers. After being "abandoned by their political class" these people look back to a "simpler, less tolerant time" to construct themselves a new identity. Once proud workers, they now bond over being anti-Catholic and use this as the glue to bond their social group together.
It is partly this limited local color palette of self-expression that the "choose life" crew were trying to escape from through heroin use, and even as adults approaching middle age in T2, they show their lack of respect for this segment of working class subculture by robbing them blind.
Violence As A Means Of Survival
The robbery in the local working men's club was a crime of necessity in the characters' minds; in order to further themselves and escape from the grinding mill of poverty and crime, they needed capital. This attitude can also be carried over to another one of Trainspotting and T2's overriding themes: violence.
As repeatedly demonstrated throughout the Trainspotting saga, if you don't have money or opportunity, violence is the easiest way to get respect and become a someone in the community.
Begbie is by far the most violent character in the movies and his ruthless behavior leads to his repeated downfall; from the moment he is betrayed by his friends in the original movie, to his readmission to jail in T2. Although Begbie is a despicable character, we are forced to examine just how he became so vicious.
Begbie explains it best himself when he tells Renton how his actions two decades earlier indirectly inspired senseless acts of brutality:
"You know, I killed a man once. A man who'd done nothing to me. Cunt just looked at me the wrong way in a moment when I was thinking of you. I've been thinking about you for 20 year. When you robbed us. Your best mates. Never got my money back. Never got my hope back."
This examination of how past wrongs can stretch into the future and impact other people through acts of violence is a theme that flashes time and time again in Trainspotting and T2.
Of course, not all the characters are violent, but they are all driven to savage acts by the complex network of past grievances and the inescapability of their circumstances. When Spud smashes Begbie in the head with a ceramic toilet at the end of T2, he didn't want to but was forced to by the aftershocks of previous wrongdoing and a desire to protect his friends.
Drug Users Aren't Terrible People, But People In Terrible Circumstances
Violence, futility and poverty might be ongoing themes in Trainspotting, but just as strong are themes of friendship, honor, the human spirit. Although the movies are jam-packed with hauntingly appalling acts, we maintain an affectionate understanding of those who commit them.
Even the despicable Begbie is given a moment of humanity in T2 when Spud explains the villainous criminal's own father was such a chronic alcoholic that he became mentally unhinged and homeless. Renton may have run away with his friends' money, but he also had the humanity to leave Spud his portion of the spoils back in Trainspotting and returned to reimburse Simon in T2. Spud might be the most hopeless junkie of the lot of them who ruined his wife and son's lives with his addiction, but the way he sincerely wants to care more about love than drugs is his defining feature.
There is no denying that the Trainspotting universe is dark, but the shards of hope that penetrate the gloom come from the characters' capacity for love, friendship and occasionally, even morality.
T2 Trainspotting is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. What do you think is the dominant theme of Trainspotting?