“I wish that I was born a thousand years ago / I wish that I'd sailed the darkened seas /On a great big clipper ship / Going from this land here to that / In a sailor's suit and cap /Away from the big city / Where a man cannot be free / Of all the evils of this town / And of himself and those around…” (The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”).
In Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting, protagonist Mark Renton holds up heroin as something that allows its users to transcend the petty nothings of society and achieve some sort of inner nirvana. Played by Ewan McGregor, Renton claims to use heroin as an escape from the greater postmodern civilization around him. He hates the forces of consumerism and capitalism and the way they strip agency and individualism from people, and he openly mocks those who blindly accept the instruction manual society writes for them. The film initially seems to support Renton’s rhetoric with a whimsical first act, portraying Renton and his group of friends as carefree rebels, but as Trainspotting continues, it shows the complete failure of heroin to work in the way Renton claims. Inherently temporary and destructive, heroin use in Trainspotting falls apart when tested as an alternative to society. Even worse, the film eventually shows that Renton never existed outside of society as he intended to, simply finding another community in his attempt to escape community in general, and even unknowingly embracing everything he stands against in his repeated consumption of and sacrifices to heroin itself.
Mark Renton despises the pre-packaged, vacuum-sealed life he feels normal society lays out for him. He rejects conformity, finding the ultimate in self-exclusion via the habitual use of heroin. In Trainspotting, the use of heroin acts as an escape from the reality around the characters, offered as the only way to truly escape the relentless oppression of modern civilization, capitalism, and consumerism. Renton introduces this philosophy as he says, “I chose not to choose life. I chose something else,” indicating a distinct separation between using heroin and conforming, which Renton equates with allowing society to steamroll one’s personality and individualism. He goes on to narrate, “When you’re on junk, you only have one worry. Scoring. When you’re off it, you worry about all sorts of shite.” Renton seems to see heroin as the only entity strong enough to combat the titanic force of everyday society in a modern world. Heroin erases the user’s thoughts and needs so completely that it successfully ejects him from any desire to conform or belong. Flávia Angelo Verceze and Sílvia Nogueira Cordeiro examine the psychological aspects of the characters’ drug use, writing, “Drug addiction is characterized as a postmodern symptom, which serves to prevent pain and to escape from subjectivity.” That subjectivity traps the characters in their modernist, capitalist stress, and heroin transcends this by enforcing one single product: itself. With only one thing to acquire, only one need to truly satisfy, the previously all-consuming shackles of consumerism and conformity slide off easily.
The first act of the film appears to earnestly support Renton’s pursuit of escapist nirvana. The characters appear attractive and healthy, all smiles as they joke with each other and talk about James Bond. Upbeat music plays as they shoot up, and Spud kisses Sick Boy spontaneously and non-contextually, emphasizing the freedom from normality the group enjoys from heroin. A clean, minimalist environment suggests a success in the hermetic retreat from consumerism. In Conor Ryan’s article “Tribespotting,” where he explores the social dynamic of the group and its interactions with the outside world, he writes, “There is little emphasis on acquiring material goods for social status or any other reason as seen through Renton and Swaney's [sic] flats which are almost completely devoid of possession.” Renton seems able to frolic without consequence, flaunting his externality to society and peering into the real world with his binoculars in the vibrant and lively park. The film treats Spud’s calculated failure at his job interview as a comedic event, mocking society’s attempts at assimilation and keeping Spud safely on the outside. Trainspotting goes on to portray typical social relationships and concepts as dishonest, counterproductive, and ludicrous. Spud complains at the club that his girlfriend Gail withholds sex because of something she read in Cosmopolitan about starting a relationship on a physical basis. Directly afterward, Gail confides in Lizzy that she desperately wants to have sex, but that “watching [Spud] suffer was just too much fun.” The two really want the same thing, but they are manipulated and kept apart by an artificial manifestation of consumerist culture. The resulting crash when the gap closes results in Spud’s being so drunk he cannot recognize his opportunity for sex when it finally presents itself, synthesizing the literal and figurative meanings of “shitting the bed” when he wakes up in a filthy pile of regret.
Front-loaded with bright, carefree, and even appealing depictions of heroin use, the film initially supports Renton’s belief in an adequate escape from society though heroin. But as Trainspotting transitions from the first act into the second, Renton’s initial thesis begins to unravel, revealing the temporary and destructive false solution heroin actually represents. After cutting a nature walk short, the group decides to start using again after taking a short “break” from shooting heroin for much of the movie before that point. Here the film immediately establishes the temporary nature of heroin as a substitute for normal life, showing a need for repeated devotion to keep society at bay. Renton had resolved to quit for good in the first act, but the casual way he decides to shoot up again makes a clear statement that Renton never really left heroin behind. He needs to go back to it to maintain the belief that he can exist outside of life, and outside of society. The horrific way the film eventually portrays real withdrawal, with Renton hallucinating and screaming from within a locked bedroom, further supports the idea that Renton was never “off” heroin in the film before that point, despite what he tells anyone (including himself). The notion of a repeated need becomes thematically obvious after Trainspotting leaves its sugar-coated first third behind. Thirty-nine minutes in, Begbie calls Renton “Rent Boy” for the first time in the film, and this moniker gets reused multiple times before the film concludes. The nickname “Rent Boy” characterizes Renton as living in a limbo of transience, allowing his resources to regularly disappear into a life he doesn’t even own. Heroin acts as the landlord of Renton’s life, demanding scheduled payments to continue housing Renton in its a-social shield. Returning to Renton’s quote that, on heroin, “you only have one worry. Scoring,” explains the film’s flipping view of drug use, as “scoring” is slang for both intercourse and the acquisition of drugs (Trainspotting). When the line is first spoken, it appears to mean scoring strictly in the free, hedonistic sense of intercourse. Looking back however, the drug-related meaning of “scoring” clearly takes precedence as the enduring message of the film. Heroin feels like a solution, but its inherent impermanence demands continued payments and repayments, a system totally antithetical to Renton’s supposed freedom from controlling forces.
The film simultaneously emphasizes the destructive effects of heroin alongside its temporary nature. Far from the bright, charismatically defiant rebellion of the first act, Renton’s week-long heroin bender feels dirty, gritty, and hungry. The characters wallow in filth, hunched over with sunken eyes and emaciated figures. They sit around in a bar with empty stares, doing and saying nothing instead of having lighthearted discussions and debating the meaning of life in the park. Renton steals from his parents, breaks car windows to grab and sell radios, and takes a television set from right in front of the helpless members of a nursing home. A spoon takes up the entire frame as the film forces the viewer to watch and understand the muddy grit of heroin being dissolved, stirred, and heated into a shootable mixture. Previously, Boyle glossed over the shoot-ups, hiding them off screen or on the other side of the user’s arm. Now, however, he shows the syringe sucking up the dirty mix from the spoon and a needle hanging nauseatingly from Sick Boy’s arm as he falls backwards into his high. We see Swanney receiving a thigh injection, implying that heroin ravaged his other veins beyond repair. Tommy, previously strong, healthy, and outgoing, tries heroin for the first time and quickly becomes horrifically thin and grotesque, eventually dying later in the film in a pool of his own vomit. A dramatic shift, the second act serves to illustrate the destruction of both the self and those around the self through the use of heroin. Renton sought to remove himself from society, but even if society becomes its own force or entity, as Renton perceives it, it still can only exist as a composite sum of individuals, of specific selves. The price of self-exclusion from society must then equal the sacrifice of the self. Trainspotting argues that heroin ultimately takes away the identity and humanity of the users, sapping them physically and driving them to harm and steal from other individuals. The film displays the ultimate destruction with the negligent death of the baby, Dawn. Again refusing to shy away visually, Boyle stares the camera straight into the black eyes of the dead infant, confronting his audience with the reality of the situation. Specifically the loss of a baby, Dawn’s death represents not just the destruction of an individual or an individual’s loved one, but the eradication of lineage, legacy, and memory. Despite a reasonable assumption of Sick Boy’s paternity, no one is completely sure of Dawn’s real father, allowing the child to act as a symbol of oblivion for the entire group. Her name also represents the death of a new beginning, emphasizing the cyclical destruction of heroin addiction.
Unsatisfied with proving the inadequacy of heroin as an escape, Trainspotting adds insult to injury by arguing that the characters fail to ever escape society in the first place. Sick Boy talks about James Bond both times he shoots up, the most popular and financially successful movie franchise ever at the time of Trainspotting’s 1996 release (“Movie Franchises”). He also references legendary musical icons like Elvis, David Bowie, and Lou Reed in a conversation with Renton. This fixation on popular culture flies in the face of escaping from society. Despite fleeing to the fringes of life, Sick Boy and Renton still find themselves discussing the movies everyone else watches, and the music everyone else listens to. Additionally, the repetition of nonconformity creates its own conformity, resulting in the creation of mini-societies wherever human interaction occurs. Renton and his group of “friends” exist in their own society of outcasts and drug users, with their own lingo, hierarchies, and activities. Ryan compares them to a tribe, calling their attempts to exist outside of society simply a “membership to the drug addict tribe as opposed to the human tribe [meaning society].” He goes on to point out that, “objects of consumption and acts of behavior reinforce membership of such groupings,” meaning that the use of heroin really indicates the subscription to one form of society over another, instead of the wholesale escape from human structure that Renton defines at the film’s outset. Even if Renton succeeds in removing himself from the dominant culture, he just finds himself slotted into a different community. Verceze and Cordeiro seem to think the escape attempt fails even more severely, explaining that, “in modernity, the objects to be pursued are fragile and change frequently. Satisfaction cannot be deposited in the future; it has to be consumed instantly.” This means that heroin not only fails to actually remove Renton from society, consumerism, and his postmodern phobias, but represents a wholesale immersion in a world of eternal consumption. So confident and self-assured at first, Renton fails to embrace his own philosophy so spectacularly that he not only completely fails in his initial goal, but actually finds the most efficient and predominant method of living the life he claims to hate. He says he detests society, yet he hangs around the same people again and again despite professing to not even like them. He mocks pointless consumerism, but he spends all his time and money on a drug that has no lasting mental, emotional, or tangible value. He argues that society destroys freedom by enforcing certain choices and then proceeds to give himself up to a drug that leaves him with only the choice to take more, screaming, “I need one more fucking hit! You Fuck!” at his own parents as he starts feeling true withdrawal (Trainspotting). In every way, from every angle, heroin completely fails to shield Renton from the world, establishing its own society while simultaneously representing the nature of the postmodernism Renton runs from.
With Trainspotting, Danny Boyle creates an interesting divergence between Renton’s messages and beliefs and the messages of the film itself. Tangling them together at first, Boyle sets the stage for a sardonic view of drug use by aesthetically agreeing with Renton’s defense of heroin in the beginning of the film. Before long, though, the drawbacks begin to appear, revealing heroin as a temporary and destructive force not worth its intended philosophical purpose. With Renton’s argument weakened, the film strikes a death blow once the failure to escape reality becomes clear. The initial brightness of the film’s start tastes bitter and sarcastic in hindsight, instilling in the viewer the sense that Trainspotting never agreed with Renton at all, and that the apparent support of the first act resulted from our perceptions and willing desire to accept the ideals of a protagonist. Renton’s path away from society isn’t a line; it’s a circle, a spiral that leads back into itself forever. Heroin lies at the center, creating the illusion of outward motion through the centrifugal force of its injection. Unfortunately for heroin’s users, centrifugal force only exists from a flawed perspective of an object’s motion, but the inward pull of centripetal force is all too real. The resulting fixation and obsession on the center point of heroin addiction causes an endless societal orbit, and Renton returns to using again and again. Only once he accepts society and resolves to immerse himself in it does the film end, indicating perhaps a need to find a place in society and acting within it, rather than trying to escape the system entirely.
Angelo Verceze, Flávia and Sílvia Nogueira Cordeiro. "Trainspotting: A Psychoanalytic Perspective of Drug Addiction in Contemporary Society." ["Trainspotting: Uma perspectiva psicanalítica da toxicomania na contemporaneidade"]. SMAD Revista Electrónica Salud Mental, Alcohol Y Drogas, vol. 12, no. 3, Jul-Sep 2016, pp. 154-162.
“Movie Franchises.” The Numbers, Nash Information Services, LLC.
Ryan, Conor, et al. "Tribespotting: A Semiotic Analysis of the Role of Consumption in the Tribes of Trainspotting." Journal of Consumer Behaviour, vol. 5, no. 5, Sep/Oct 2006, pp. 431-441.
The Velvet Underground. “Heroin.” The Velvet Underground & Nico, T.T.G. Studios, Hollywood, CA, May 1966.
This paper was presented by the author on April 14, 2018, at James Madison University as a part of Sigma Tau Delta's Undergraduate Conference.