366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.


FEATURING: , , , Jonny Lee Miller, , Kelly Macdonald

PLOT: Renton, a heroin addict struggling to get his life under control, is just one of a collection of misfit 20-somethings puttering around Edinburgh, Scotland, in this stark and blackly-comedic examination of the underworld.

Still from Trainspotting (1996)

COMMENTS: A commonly requested movie in our reader request queue, Trainspotting holds the ranks of cult classic, box office smash (relative to its budget), and critical hit. Not only is the movie itself enshrined by fans, but the soundtrack—one of the biggest reasons why this is a cult film to begin with—was a worldwide multi-platinum seller. To make sure that I don’t go off on anymore tangents about the soundtrack (because I adore it, natch), here’s my coverage over at my music blog gig so I can focus here on the movie; later, I’ll climb on my soapbox about drug legalization/awareness/safety. When it comes to this movie’s themes, I find myself almost distressingly overqualified to discuss it.

I trust that after almost three decades almost everybody interested has seen (or at least heard about) the film, so I’ll just fill in some light non-spoily details. Trainspotting has a Pulp-Fiction-like structure, with several intersecting lives on various trajectories, some headed up and some headed down, verily, to the gutter or the grave. At the center of this busy rat’s nest of urban squalor is antihero Renton (McGregor), heroin addict trying to get his life on track. His mates are Sick Boy (Miller), a blond pimp, co-junkie, and charming sociopath; Spud (Bremner), a luckless underdog with the personality (and IQ) of a Labrador puppy; Begbie (Carlyle), a brawling psychopath with a hair-trigger temper that even scares his closest friends; and Tommy (McKidd), a squeaky-clean and very self-righteous jock. Renton is trying his best to straighten out and fly right. But first he has to overcome his addiction, and then the gravitational pull of urban poverty. Renton stands at the threshold of a bleak and joyless existence, wondering if his own future is worth salvaging.

When it comes to weird-movie credentials, everyone seems to remember the toilet where Renton dives after his precious suppositories—a shot of it is in every trailer. Some recall the dead baby crawling on the ceiling, turning his head Exorcist-style before falling down on Renton, just one of many hallucinations the addict experiences during extreme withdrawal. But let’s not forget the overdose scene, where Renton nods off so hard that he physically sinks into the carpet about six feet deep… and we’re stuck in that POV all the way to the hospital, when a shot brings him bolting out of his drug coma (and return to wide-screen). His dealer, Mother Superior (“jumped the gun”), stuffs Renton’s limp body into a cab, and the cab driver in turn dumps him on the street in front of the emergency room like a sack of garbage—one of many bleak depictions of an addict’s lot. The aforementioned dead baby was the daughter of another addict hanging out with Sick Boy, whom is implied to be the father, and the scene where the junkies rise from their narcotic haze long enough to discover the infant corpse in its crib is another gut-punch. Want more wild scenes? Spud accidentally showers of a family of four at breakfast with feces flung from his dirty laundry ( sends his thanks); the Volcano nightclub is decorated in homage to Clockwork Orange; a 16-year-old girl seduces Renton and blackmails him into continuing dating her (what the hell?). Begbie’s outbursts bring up the rear. The first time we see the slim thug in a pub, drinking on a balcony with his mates, he drains his glass and chucks it over his shoulder without looking. When it shatters on the head of a patron below, he jumps into the ensuing brawl. Every scene Begbie is involved in has a 50% chance of ending in bloodshed.

What really stands out about this movie, however, is its unique take on the drug-user underground. Danny Boyle did such a fine job adapting Irvine Welsh’s novel, without resorting to just-say-no preaching, that the film has been accused of being both pro- and anti-drug. In fact, what it does is shamelessly tell the truth from the inside: some people have such sad options in life that drug addiction isn’t much of a step down. Some people do drugs and die, some do drugs for awhile and quit, and some people can function on drugs all the time. While heroin isn’t the only drug mentioned, it is the focus. It’s the hardest of hard drugs (pre-fentanyl) and the most famous for overdose deaths. It’s also the hardest to kick. Smack crawls under your skin and possesses you; the addiction replaces your personality like a body-snatcher. I’ll personally advocate for weed and psychedelic legalization, but the one drug I’ll never touch is heroin. If you’ve known a few users, you can attest that even the most surreal moments of horror in this movie are so on-the-nose that they must have been generated from first-person experiences.

Trainspotting also pulls back to examine the world outside of drugs, showing what boxes these people in: apathetic and overworked legal and medical systems that mill addicts through jail sentences and methadone prescriptions, long-suffering but powerless parents, and a gray industrial horizon. Even Renton’s mother is a Valium addict; he filches a pill or two from her. And although Renton is not above his friends in ripping off anything they can steal to afford a fix, he does manage to clean up enough to land a job and get his own place—only to have his old mates move in and slowly reclaim his pad as a criminal druggie nest. To escape the heroin trap, he must irrevocably cut all ties. And then that former addict confidently strolls right out of the end credits into the audience, to become just like us, choosing a career, a family, and a solid dental plan. In the end, Trainspotting will have you choosing life, even if you have to flirt with death to get there!


“Strange, the cult following “Trainspotting” has generated in the UK, as a book, a play and a movie. It uses a colorful vocabulary, it contains a lot of energy, it elevates its miserable heroes to the status of icons (in their own eyes, that is), and it does evoke the Edinburgh drug landscape with a conviction that seems born of close observation. But what else does it do? Does it lead anywhere? Say anything? Not really. That’s the whole point.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

Where to watch Trainspotting

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *