Many drugs are mind altering. Opioids, and specifically heroin, are life altering. I’ve never taken heroin, even though I’ve seen others take it and had it offered to me. My addiction was contained to many of the other opioids, from oxycodone to Demerol to garden variety morphine. Nine years clean and I still remember the stranglehold they held on my life, intent on ruining everything good in my life. It wasn’t exactly Trainspotting. Still, I’ll always understand Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and the lads, to some extent.
Opioids pull you away from the world, both with an otherworldly physical sensation and in the mental isolation they instil in the user, effectively shielding them from reality. On an existential level, they end your life. The addict becomes suspended in a space somewhere between fantasy and reality, as if experiencing a form of spiritual death. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting is a humorous if not bleak look at the truth that hard drugs are, for the junkie, a version of the afterlife, during which they experience heaven, hell, and purgatory at various intervals. Boyle’s choice to weave the gritty life of a group of heroin addicts shot, by necessity, in a low-budget style with moments of magical realism captures the process of addiction in vivid and at times terrifying detail. It’s like a 20th-century version of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy narrated by a lad from Edinburgh hooked on skag. Renton guides us from Inferno to Purgatorio and finally to Paradiso. This journey is facilitated by Boyle’s use of magical realism to convey the fantastical, if not devastating effects and consequences of taking heroin.
Immediately, the “Choose Life” monologue from Irvine Welsh’s book – originally located around the middle of the text, moved to the beginning of the screenplay by Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge – is essentially the anthem for all narcissist drug users. The viewer has no doubts about Renton or his friends Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) being addicts right from the opening scene. The “Choose Life” monologue also reveals the utter obsession of the addict with nothing else except getting high. Renton could’ve chose any number of paths, and yet he chose one that lead him into those dark woods of Dante. Nevertheless, those dark woods, for him, are just as good as heaven if he has heroin to guide him.
No matter how it appears outwardly to the non-addict, junkie heaven is the high itself. Boyle puts us directly in the midst of all the needle use and the decrepit apartments in rundown public housing complexes. He never glorifies the drug lifestyle while not shying away from illustrating how much an addict enjoys being high. After spending so much time in heavenly bliss, the junkie gets so desperate to crawl back to that chemical fantasyland they’re willing to mentally bend reality themselves to get there. Even when Renton decides on getting clean he’s desperate enough to go fishing in a nasty pub toilet for opium suppositories he lost. The Worst Toilet in Scotland scene is prefaced by Boyle adding “The Worst” and “in Scotland” to the toilet door’s label, similar to Dante’s vision of hell where a sign hangs above the entrance warning: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” The toilet transforms via the junkie mind into a clear pool of water. In the throes of desperation, Renton is suddenly no longer a junkie – he’s a diver searching the ocean floor for glorious, valuable pearls. Boyle doesn’t let the viewer stray too long, though. He reels us back up out of the water and into the stall of that hideous toilet where – just as it does when baby Dawn perishes from neglect partway through the film – the reality of the junkie once more returns in all its brutality.
When Renton overdoses in the apartment of his dealer, Swanney a.k.a Mother Superior (Peter Mullan), he passes between life and death; not quite alive, never fully dead. Boyle’s magical realism here is a double dose of symbolism. After Renton shoots up, he literally sinks into the carpet. On one hand, this is a metaphor of the opioid high itself, as the warm, fuzzy carpet hugs him into it with open arms. It’s also symbolic of the antisocial nature of heroin; the retreat into the carpet is the junkie reverting completely within themselves. On the other hand, Boyle shows us the banal, everyday death of the junkie symbolised by the carpet transforming into a coffin, and the floor of the apartment acts as a grave. D.P. Brian Tufano’s camera assumes the point-of-view of Renton, pointing up through the opening of the makeshift grave while Mother Superior looks down upon him. The viewer becomes a corpse looking out from a carpeted grave. When Renton makes it to a hospital and the nurses give him adrenaline he comes back to life, even though he wasn’t totally dead. He then re-emerges from the carpet-lined coffin. As if hovering on the line between life and death wasn’t disturbing enough, it’s Renton’s drug purgatory where the actual horror begins.
Following his overdose, Renton is forced into a cold turkey, homemade rehab by his mother and father. This is his personal purgatory, or as he describes it himself “the junkie limbo,” before any of the nastier symptoms take hold. Withdrawals turn fantasy into terror, and those happy, cosy fantasies of junkie heaven are subverted into nightmares. Magical realism is now horrific realism. He see his friend Begbie (Robert Carlyle) under his sheets representing the social shame of being a junkie. He sees his parents on a television set answer game show questions about AIDS, which symbolises his fear of the consequences of his intravenous drug use. There’s also the most harrowing representation of heroin’s consequences: baby Dawn, who was found dead in her crib by the group of junkies, now crawls along the ceiling, and her head spins around, before she falls down onto Renton in bed. Later comes the guilt when he sees Spud in prison chains after Renton managed to escape any charges for their doomed robbery, and he sees Tommy (Kevin McKidd), who he introduced to heroin, in a wretched state of advanced addiction; both of which signify his own psychologically debilitating guilt. His parents assure him he will get through it, just as Virgil tells Dante in Purgatorio: “My son/ Here may indeed be torment, but not death.”
Torment doesn’t necessarily end there, either. The worst comes after purgatory when the junkie must return to reality. They’re not able to sweat and vomit the guilt out, neither can they rid their system of the damaging memories of the things they’ve done and what they’ve seen. Suddenly, life is hell, which is no less difficult even if it’s part of the route to heaven.
Renton remarks that “once the pain goes away that’s when the real battle starts” because Trainspotting’s vision of junkie hell is real life itself. After first kicking the habit, Boyle’s magical realism vanishes. For over a half hour near the end of the film the viewer and Renton experience unfiltered reality. Even when he relapses the ugliness of reality does not leave because his eyes have opened from the slumber of addiction, and while physically he’s falling back into drugs he refuses to fall back there mentally again, too. This is punctuated by Renton witnessing his maniac friend Begbie cause a violent, bloody scene in the pub for no other reason than his own clumsiness and anger. He sees the destructive reality of his life in no uncertain terms, which only fortifies his will to make an actual, lasting change. Ironically, Renton’s betrayal of his friends is the absolute best personal choice for him, and the only way he can truly escape addiction. Just as it is in real life, sometimes to be free of addiction we must shed the skin of our former life, even though our friends are a part of what makes up that skin.
Boyle’s magical realism puts the viewer through the afterlife of drug use and addiction alongside Renton. More importantly, it acts as a guide along the journey. We experience the heavenly hallucinatory highs of heroin with him, then we go through the purgatorial space of withdrawal, as well as the hell of real life where there’s no more fantasy, just pure and honest reality. This doesn’t mean there is no hope for Renton. Dante’s Divine Comedy is thematically concerned with sin, in that it suggests the individual must recognise and accept one’s sins in order to find a path to heaven. Once Renton fully accepts his addiction and the magical realism slips away, he experiences a version of hell, yet in a sense he’s also able to move closer to a real heaven that’s non-drug induced; reality instead of fantasy.
Although Trainspotting ends on a bittersweet note with Renton betraying his longtime friends, this is actually his salvation. It isn’t exactly what Dante would’ve envisioned, though it’s as close as someone like Renton will get to salvation. If someone like him – or me, for that matter, nearing a decade into my own recovery – can escape that life and the cycle of addiction, it’s attainable for anyone willing to undertake the journey. This is why Renton narrates the film to the viewer, almost as if he’s our guide, similar to how Virgil was a guide for Dante. If we consider where he ends up in the sequel, T2, at least we know that he’s able to stay clean for many years. What neither Mark Renton nor the rest of society can afford to forget is that addiction never leaves us, it’s a force we must constantly battle even after the addict is clean. This means that the important lessons of Trainspotting are pointless if they’re forgotten.