“Choose Life” (chase, Renton alone in room, football with friends, football/heroin hit fall) - “A sincere and truthful drug habit” - “All manner of cunts telling you that…” - “finished with that shite” - Preparing for withdrawal - Suppositories
The film opens on a shot of a busy street. Suddenly two legs, running, enter the front of the shot, and “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop starts playing. It cuts to a wider tracking shot to show the runner, Mark Renton, being chased by two store security guards, as he sprints through downtown Edinburgh Scotland, dropping items from his pockets. His friend Spud is also running from the guards, a few meters behind Renton. A voice-over by Renton, our narrator and protagonist, is heard over the chase scene, delivering what has become one of the most famous quotes from the film. He opens with “Choose life,” and goes on to describe the typical and expected life trajectory at the time, which includes a job, career, family, and material comfort, with each item on his list preceded by the word"‘choose."
Renton’s flight from the security guards is brought to a halt when a car hits him as he runs across a street. Rolling off of the hood unscathed, he plants himself in front of the car, puts his hands on the hood, leans in, and stares at the driver. A grin appears on his face. Spud continues running down the street. The scene freezes and white lettering spelling the name “Renton” appears over his chest. A cut to Renton standing alone in a dingy room (which we later understand to be Swanney’s flat) and smoking a cigarette interrupts the scene and prevents us from seeing whether Renton is caught or not. He continues his soliloquy as the film proceeds through an introductory montage of images.
He goes through other elements of a ‘good life,’ mostly focusing on health, as we see him appear drugged in this dingy flat. When he says, “choose your friends,” the montage cuts to him and his four friends, all posing for the camera like a photo is being taken, on a small soccer pitch. The images then pick up speed. As he continues this speech, we are shown the other soccer team in the same pose as a comparison. They are all clean cut, healthy looking, and wearing identical uniforms. Renton’s squad is a motley crew wearing whatever they please. The other team is quite a bit better, but Renton’s team plays dirtier. In the stands, we are shown three women (Lizzy, Gail, and Allison) with Allison’s baby, cheering on Renton and his team.
As the soccer match unfolds, each of Renton’s friends is shown during a piece of play that characterizes them, and the shot freezes and displays their names in white lettering. Sick Boy commits a sneaky foul and denies it, Begbie makes no effort to hide a dirty foul, Spud lets an easy goal past him, flinching as it goes by, and Tommy chases the ball and works hard to shield it from two opposing players. Renton’s critique of society continues, growing more and more specific. Gradually, the monologue becomes more overtly negative, and describes “choosing” an existential midlife crisis, growing old, and winding up in an elder home, waiting to die. As he wraps up the “choose…” speech, which ends back at “Choose life,” he is hit in the head by a free kick, and begins to fall backward on the pitch. In a series of parallel cuts between the soccer pitch and the flat, he is shown falling in the same way—in one because of the soccer ball and in the other because of a dose of heroin. As he lies on the floor, he asks in response to his “choose life” speech: “who would want to do a thing like that?” He explains that he chose something other than life—heroin—and that no one needs reasons for anything when they are on heroin.
A shot of part of the flat shows the baby alone in one room, and some of Renton’s friends (Sick Boy, Spud, and Allison) in another, preparing to shoot up. Spud collapses backwards after a hit, and Sick Boy prepares Allison’s arm for a hit. Sick Boy is heard going on about James Bond movies, his favorite subject. Spud kisses Sick Boy on the mouth, and Sick Boy tells him off. Renton continues to narrate, explaining why he and his friends all use heroin. He explains that most people think it’s only used out of desperation and misery, but in fact the thing that keeps them using it is the pleasure (he says it is far better than 1000 times the best orgasm). As he finishes explaining this, Allison confirms his analysis, saying, “better than any cock in the world,” after Sick Boy delivers the hit to her.
Renton continues to explain what it means to have a “sincere and truthful drug habit,” explaining that nothing matters to a junkie except the next hit. He explains that this is better than all the stuff one has to worry about if one is not a junkie, like money, bills, food, their football team, relationships, etc. Sick Boy continues to ramble about James Bond (specifically, Sean Connery), as Swanney, who he calls “Mother Superior,” gives him a hit. Renton continues that the only drawback to having a drug habit is having to “endure all manner of cunts who tell you…” His thought is finished by a cut to Begbie in a pub, smoking and drinking, saying “No way would I poison my body with that shite…” A series of cuts to various people in Renton’s life shows them all expressing a similar sentiment. After Begbie, this group includes Tommy, Renton’s dad, and Gavin.
Renton’s fluid narration then carries him to the thought of: “even I have uttered the magic words…” and we are shown him standing up while coming off of a dose and saying, “I’m finished with that shite.” Swanney doubts that Renton will be able to get off drugs, but Renton assures him that he means it this time. Renton says he is going to use the “Sick Boy Method,” and both he and Swanney look at Sick Boy, who is shown lying on the floor, drugged. Swanney offers Renton one more hit before he tries to go off drugs, and Renton refuses it at first but eventually accepts it, citing the length of Swanney’s habit and his deep knowledge of addiction.
A cut to Renton’s flat shows him preparing for withdrawal, as he describes the materials necessary for what we assume to be the “Sick Boy Method” of getting off of drugs. This includes: various foods (different soups and ice cream), a TV, a bed, buckets for vomit, urine, and feces, pornography, and various non-opiate drugs, among other items. During this list we are shown the door to his flat boarded shut to prevent him from leaving. However, at the end of his preparation, he decides he need one final hit to soothe the pain of withdrawal and ease the transition while another drug (Valium) takes effect. We are shown the boarded-shut door busted open, and Renton in the hallway calling a drug dealer named Mikey Forrester.
A close-up of Renton’s hand holding two opium suppositories pans out to reveal a setting change. Renton is in Mikey Forrester’s apartment. He is frustrated that Mikey has given him opium suppositories instead of the typical intravenous hit. Renton’s voice-over explains that he would not typically do business with Mikey Forrester, but he is desperate. Mikey tries to explain that suppositories are perfect in the given situation because they have a slow release. Renton inserts them into his rectum right there in Mikey’s apartment.
The opening shot of the film immediately establishes the setting and introduces our protagonist. Mark Renton’s opening narration, which has become the most iconic quote from the film, sets the tone and point of view that the rest of the film will take. We are going to be shown the world through Mark Renton’s eyes, and his personality and style will come through the film’s images in a way that is almost autobiographical. His critique of civilized society in this first scene gives us an indication of the attitude of Renton and his friends, and the rebellious youth culture to which they adhere. Also of note in the opening scene is the use of a reverse tracking shot; tracking shots are employed frequently throughout the film (and by Danny Boyle often, in general), and tend to give the style a documentary feel, as well as helping to connect the viewers to the protagonist. This documentary feel is important because it comes into direct conflict with the surreal nature of much of the film—these two opposing styles establish the film’s perspective as an honest yet surreal and subjective recounting by Renton.
Though he ends his monologue by telling us that there are “no reasons,” for his choices in life, his sardonic tone when describing the "perfect life" suggests that his reasons for his choices have to do with a youthful rejection of the society in which he has been raised. His tying together of material comforts with family relationships and larger life choices indicates a frustration with the materiality of his capitalist society, and his mockery of the plodding and predestined nature of adult life reflects a sense that his society works to trap its citizens on a single, uniform path for their adult lives. The list form of the monologue and the use of “choose” before each item makes it clear that he views what society sees as important parts of life—like health, a career, and relationships—as totally commodified. His urge to reject such aspects of society has been a common and well-known part of youth culture for a long time, and continues today. During the era in which the film is set, the 1980s and 1990s, these feelings were a prevalent part of youth culture, and an important part of rebellious movements, such as Punk.
Behind this opening monologue, the images shown are important for Renton’s and his friends’ characterizations. Renton’s reaction to getting hit by a car while running from the security guards, which is to stop, stare at the driver, and start laughing, indicates a nihilistic attitude toward life. This attitude manifests as being amused by chance events and other people, and by their effects on him. The soccer match draws a comparison between his friends and a group of ‘straight’ young men who behave as society expects them to. They are more healthy and fit, but Renton perceives them (and shows them to us) as pompous and laughable in their matching soccer uniforms. In a more direct way, Renton’s friends are characterized by their behavior during the soccer match: Sick Boy is a sneaky cheat, Begbie is openly aggressive and antagonizing, Spud is stupid and generally pathetic, and Tommy is alone in his competence.
The parallelism between Renton’s fall at the soccer match and his fall while on drugs at Swanney’s flat is the first indication of the subjective, frenetic, surreal tone of the film. Though it is not quite surreal itself (the images themselves are of real events in the film), it gives the impression that time is not going to be shown in a reliable way in the film, and that certain aspects of reality will be skipped over for Renton’s subjective version of events. It also likens the physical effect of a dose of heroin to being hit hard in the head. As it is revealed that our protagonist’s heroin addiction will be a driving force behind the film, we are shown several of his friends also preparing to shoot up. Renton’s absence from this initial heroin use scene, which is due to his already being high in another room, also hints at the other driving force in the film: the negative influence of his friends, and Renton’s desire to distance himself from them. Further, the shot that simultaneously shows his friends using heroin in one room while the baby crawls around alone in the other room foreshadows the death of the baby due to parental neglect, and the fact that this neglect is tied directly to its mother’s heroin use.
Sick Boy’s monologue about James Bond movies in this scene is used as part of his characterization: he is obsessively fixated on Sean Connery, to the point that it is almost the only thing he cares about outside of heroin. We will find that most of his dialogue throughout the film has to do with Sean Connery. Additionally, Allison’s exclamation that the hit is “better than any cock in the world,” supporting Renton’s assertion that the drug is 1000 times better than sex, will become important as a driver of the plot later in the film. It comes up again most notably as Tommy’s reason for starting to use heroin, and underlies some of the sexual encounters in the film—Renton regains his libido only when he is off of heroin, and the failure of his, Sick Boy’s, and Spud’s sexual endeavors drives them back to heroin.
Though Renton insists that he chooses heroin for no reason other than how good the high feels, his opening monologue undermines this argument. We get the sense that an important underlying reason for his drug habit is a refusal to participate in society, and to try instead to become despised by society. When he complains of various people telling him to get off of heroin, and shows us his father and three friends, all using nearly the same exact language, the larger underlying point he makes is that those people are all adhering to society in the same way, and are a part of the homogeneity he so loathes. Gavin’s attempt to sell him a cooker after telling him to stop using heroin drives Renton’s point home with another reference to the societal obsession with materialism. Throughout the rest of the film, we find Renton making decisions about whether to use heroin and when to use it based on whether it will upset the people in his life that want him to stop, which supports this initial analysis. Additionally, the way his friends finish his narrated line in this scene helps to establish further the autobiographical perspective of the film.
Renton’s exchange with Swanney when he announces he is quitting indicates that he has tried to break his addiction to heroin before, as has Sick Boy, without success. Renton’s decision to use the Sick Boy method juxtaposed with the image of Sick Boy lying on the floor while on heroin, foreshadows a failure of Renton’s attempt to break his habit. The image of Renton nailing the door shut, followed by the later image of the door broken open as he calls his drug dealer, further foreshadows his failure to permanently break his habit. The list form of Renton’s preparation for withdrawal mirrors the list form of the “choose life” monologue, and contributes to the fast-paced, casual, subjective style of the film. Further, Renton’s description of various buckets for urine, vomit, and feces, indicates that he will not hold back on discussing and showing the more graphic and unpleasant aspects of his drug habit. This is immediately supported by the image in the following scene of Renton shoving the suppositories down his pants and into his rectum, right in front of Mikey Forrester. The way that the camera opens on the suppositories in Renton’s hand before zooming out to expose the rest of the scene at Mikey’s apartment is a strategy frequently employed by the director—he often transitions between scenes by focusing on the material subject of the scene, connecting the characters with the materialism that Renton often mocks, but also adheres to in his own way (he is incredibly materially-minded about his drug habit).