The film is centered on Renton’s struggle with heroin addiction, and most of the characters’ actions are driven by addiction. The film raises interesting questions about the nature of addiction, whether one can be faulted for behaviors driven by addiction, what the source of addiction might be, and what it means really to break free from an addiction. At various points, Renton ruminates on the mindset of junkies, and how the only thing they think about is their next hit—he even describes it as freeing. We find him committing various crimes or harming those around him because of his addiction, but we are also shown images that help us understand the strength of the addiction. We can then understand some of Renton’s behaviors and feel sympathy for him despite his mistakes.
The movie does not glamorize drug use at all; a major part of this theme is the depths to which addicts will sink and the terrible living conditions they will endure as long as remain addicted. Tied to this theme is the way that addiction also affects those around the addicts; we see an innocent infant die of neglect because of her mother's addiction. Tommy, who is not a heroin user at the start of the movie, is also harmed by the addictions of his friends—their promotion of heroin draws him to the drug. Additionally, his character helps us to understand how one might start an addiction: struggling with a low point in his life, Tommy decides to try heroin, and his addiction becomes a vicious cycle. The film achieves a complex and nuanced take on drug addiction, offering several ways of looking at it, so that the audience can understand it better.
The function of friendship, what it means, and what its harms and benefits might be, are central to the film. It is often implied that Renton’s problem, more than his drug addiction, is his friendship with the wrong people. His friends use him and each other for their own means, and seem not to care about one another’s well-being. All of Renton’s friendships are toxic in some way: Sick Boy and Begbie are incredibly negative influences on Renton, and Spud and Tommy are victims of Renton’s selfishness. Despite the clear problems in their friendships, Renton and his friends rarely do anything to try to change their friends or escape their influence; this is summed up by the oft-repeated line about Begbie, “he’s a mate, so what can you do?” Renton and his friends seem to have some idea of friendship as something they forged a long time ago, and which should not be broken even if the friendship is nothing but trouble. Renton finally begins to improve toward the end of the film when he makes this realization—he needs to escape his friends, and so he moves to London. Though they catch up to him again, he finally resolves to flee them forever, and commits one final trespass against them that will end their friendship permanently. He does seem to appreciate Spud at the end and leave money for him, indicating that he has come to understand that Spud was unique in never having hurt him, which is an important part of friendship.
Causes and outcomes of criminality
Renton and his friends repeatedly commit crimes throughout the film, and the various motivations and outcomes of their crimes draw a distinction between violent crimes and theft driven by addiction. The film also raises many questions about the nature of criminality, whether one can be blamed entirely for crimes committed for addiction, and whether certain displays, like remorse, mitigate one’s criminality. This is brought to a head at the shoplifting trial, when the judge proclaims that addiction explains, but does not excuse, Renton and Spud’s actions. In this same trial, however, the judge deems Spud’s criminality worse because he fails to show remorse, while Renton fakes remorse to avoid a sentence. This raises questions about the role of appearances in the justice system—how is it that Spud is deemed more of a criminal, when it is clear to the audience that Renton is worse?
Additionally, we see an increase in Sick Boy’s criminality following a tragedy (the death of his daughter), which indicates that the driving force behind criminality might be trauma in some cases. Another comparison is drawn between Renton and Begbie: Renton’s crimes are driven by his addiction to a substance, while Begbie is criminal because of his love for violence and aggression. Though Renton’s crimes may not be “victimless,” it is clear to the audience that they are not as directly harmful to people as the violent assaults that Begbie regularly commits. Still, Renton is often viewed as more criminal than Begbie (until the bank robbery) for things like shoplifting—society, as represented by the judge and the nurse, view him as criminal or low, and he is actually arrested while Begbie suffers new consequences for his many assaults. This implies that addiction itself is considered criminal, and that criminality is derived from society’s prejudices.
Waste and decay
In the film, drug use is shown to cause waste and biological decay. This connection is made throughout the film by imagery—we see this perhaps most clearly in the “worst toilet in Scotland” scene and when Renton visits Tommy, who has contracted HIV. Human feces is often used to symbolize such decay, and toward the end of the film, blood and HIV are also used to show the bodily corruption that heroin can cause. This theme is one that offers a poignant criticism of heroin use, despite the claim by some critics that Trainspotting glorifies drugs: drug use corrupts your body and brings on illness and death.
Reality and perception
This theme is primarily conveyed by the director’s stylistic choices. Much of the photography reflects documentary styles, like tracking shots, while the content plays with surrealism. We get the sense that the film’s images are intended to portray honestly Renton’s understanding of the world, but that understanding is often marred by a skewed perception of reality. We are shown incredible detail, which conveys a graphic realism and obvious surrealism in immediate succession; in the overdose scene, for example, the close of up the inside of the needle realistically portrays the way that an injection works, in detail and from an angle that Renton could never possibly have seen; this realistic scene is immediately followed by a surreal daydream in which he imagines falling through the floor in Swanney’s apartment.
This theme extends to societal perceptions and the way such perceptions can be at odds with reality. We see in Renton’s encounters with people outside of his friend group (the judge, the nurse) that society has a perception of Renton because of his drug habit that causes them to judge him in a certain way. The viewer, however, has seen enough of his reality to develop a better understanding of his actions, and see how these perceptions can be misguided. Further, Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland where the film is set, is widely considered to be a cultural hot-spot and a city that appreciates beauty and the arts. This perception is cleverly juxtaposed with the seedy, criminal world of film's main characters—their reality is not often considered by most people’s perceptions.
Boyle uses materialism to connect scenes together, and to connect the “normal” world with the drug-fueled world of Renton and his friends. Renton criticizes materialism in his opening monologue, mocking it as an idiotic, pathetic, and perhaps corrupting aspect of society. We see an illustration of this criticism when Renton's friend Gav tells him to quit heroin, and then immediately tries to sell him a pressure cooker. But while Renton may shun the material comforts on which most of society depends, he is not without his material obsessions: his simply focus on drugs and drug paraphernalia. The similarity between his materialism and the materialism of the mainstream world is highlighted by the same manner in which he lists both sets of materials, first in the “choose life” monologue (mainstream materiality) and then in the “full time business” monologue (an addict’s materiality). Further, Boyle uses close-up shots of material goods to transition between scenes, focusing first on the material object that will be central to a given scene; when Renton is sober, these are traditional consumer items (like the milkshake he shares with Spud), and when he is on drugs, these are drug-related items (like the suppositories in his hand at Mikey Forrester’s). His fixation on drugs and paraphernalia when he is addicted is no different from the type of consumerist addiction that he mocks in society. This can be seen simultaneously as an example of Renton’s flawed thinking and hypocrisy, as well as a cutting criticism of society’s addiction to materialism.
Renton’s opening monologue, where he criticizes widespread materialism, sums up the rebellious attitude of his generation, and the way they desired a rejection of the “rat race” lifestyle that was idealized by society. Such a criticism of the older generation’s way of doing things was not out of the ordinary at the time, and has been a clear part of youth culture since the 1960s. In this way, Renton’s opening monologue is not quite as clever or original as his character seems to think it is—this is driven home at the end of the film, when Renton has matured and seems to have completely reversed his opinion on the matter, embracing the things that he criticized at the start of the film. Additionally, for much of the film, many of his actions are driven, not by a genuine desire to do things differently from mainstream society, but a simple reactiveness: his addiction seems partly driven by a rebellion against society, his antisocial behavior is a rebellion against certain types of people (the skinhead he and Sick Boy mess with in the park), and certain decisions are driven by a desire to rebel against his friends’ desires or expectations (he shoots up on the bus just to mess with Begbie).
Trainspotting (Film) Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Trainspotting (Film) is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.