If a director took Stanley Kubrick’s cynical 1971 masterpiece, ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ brushed away its surreal sci-fi trappings, recast its anarchist droogs as Scottish heroin addicts, and set the story in late ‘80s Edinburgh, he’d probably end up with something strikingly similar to director Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting.’ Even so, it would take quite a talented filmmaker to match the intensity and hyper-realism Boyle hurls at the screen with calculated abandon. His vision is so challenging, so unsettling and powerful, that I’m hard pressed to think of a film involving substance abuse that captures the desperation and self-destructive consequences of addiction so effectively (Aronofsky’s ‘Requiem for a Dream’ being the lone exception that pops to mind). I’m not suggesting ‘Trainspotting’ will appeal to everyone, but I am saying that it’s an unsettling experience that any true fan of cinema should tackle at least once.
Based on British author Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel of the same name, ‘Trainspotting’ follows a trio of young heroin addicts -- narrator and central protagonist Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), pop-culture guru Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and archetypal loser Spud (Ewen Bremner) -- who have divorced themselves from society to live life as they see fit. They spend their days shoplifting, shooting up, sleeping around, and sharing a pint with their heroin-free, friends including a football fanatic named Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and a violent alcoholic named Francis (Robert Carlyle). Before long, Renton sets his mind to kicking his habit, but fails at every turn. As his efforts lead him to a rehabilitation program, a parental intervention, and the funeral of a close friend, Renton has to find a way to escape the life he built for himself.
The real brilliance of ‘Trainspotting’ is that its first hour is as unhinged and unrelenting as the chaos consuming its characters’ lives. Boyle (who would go on to direct ’28 Days Later’ and ‘Sunshine’) doesn’t just introduce Renton and his inner circle, he exposes their nature and motivations; presenting their antisocial behavior as amoral, disgusting, and vile. He never turns the camera away, never uses a quick cut to spare us from the unbearable, and never pulls back when a character comes apart at the seams. Granted, Boyle takes the time to show that each addict enjoys their avoidance of a “normal life” (you know… a job, furniture, a quiet neighborhood), and even delivers a healthy share of laugh-out-loud quips and hilarious sequences. I’d wager more sensitive viewers will even accuse Boyle of glorifying the addicts’ independence and rebellious spirits. As the film progresses, however, Boyle makes it abundantly clear that their decisions don’t simply impact their world, but everyone with whom they come into contact. Renton in particular struggles to sober up, stumbles at the first pangs of detox, and only really begins to understand the extent of his madness when tragedy overwhelms his previously detached existence.
I’m also not exaggerating when I tell you that ‘Trainspotting’ has some of the most disturbing scenes in recent cinematic memory. Boyle frequently loads Renton’s nightmarish trips full of surreal imagery, startling visual metaphors, and kinetically stylized hallucinations. There’s an especially upsetting scene involving a screaming infant and the neglect of the main characters that, honestly, will forever haunt me. It climaxes with a singular image that I’ve never been able to scrub from my mind. Boyle tosses other unholy surprises at the screen on a regular basis, undermining his own intriguing cinematography with content that’s so detestable and repulsive that it offers a bold commentary on Renton’s choices. By the time the film barrels into its high-throttle third act, the young hooligan is forced to question his lifestyle, the reliability of his so-called friends, and the urges that feed his addictions.
Is ‘Trainspotting’ perfect? That’s a tough one to answer. At times, the constant assault of Boyle’s imagery and Renton’s decisions simply overwhelm the senses. No matter how many times I see the film, I always find myself staring at the remote and hoping it will all be over soon. The dialogue is sharp, the story is commanding, and the direction is arguably without fault, but the content is incredibly difficult and demanding. While ‘Trainspotting’ is the sort of film I always recommend to my friends, it’s also the sort of film I dread watching with them. At the end of the day, the only real criticism I have of Boyle’s heroin epic is that it comes up a bit short when compared to ‘Requiem for a Dream’ (a definitive and slightly more excruciating exploration of addiction).
’Trainspotting’ isn’t a film you’ll necessarily enjoy watching. It’s a painful character study that doesn’t pull a single punch, but rather exposes the darkest deeds of its protagonists while providing a staggering glimpse into human depravity. My advice? Give the film itself a rent before you consider making a blind purchase. While it’s undeniably well-written and full of memorable scenes and characters, it’s definitely a tough one to take in.
(Note this Blu-ray import includes the uncensored version of ‘Trainspotting.’)
Unfortunately, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Trainspotting’ doesn’t look much better than its standard definition counterpart. While Sony’s technically proficient 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is fairly faithful to the film’s original print, fans will be sorely disappointed by the subtlety of its upgrade and the negligible impact of its underwhelming picture. In fact, there are several shots that look so similar to the SD copy I already have on my shelf that a higher score would be quite misleading to anyone taking a quick glimpse at our ratings.
The first thing I noticed was that interior scenes are dominated by rustic colors that blend together and flatten the image with muddy oranges and sickly greens. Daylit exteriors look substantially better, but still lack the three-dimensionality, sharpness, and precision I look for in a high-def presentation. Likewise, skintones flush and wane, scenes don’t have a convincing level of depth, and shadows sometimes swallow background objects. Fine detail clarity receives the most obvious bump from the increased resolution, but even the film’s best-looking scenes (often daylit exteriors) still suffer from a few fundamental hang-ups including errant print softness, wavering contrast, and some bothersome edge enhancement. Thankfully, Sony’s transfer isn’t plagued by the persistent artifacting, noise, and crushing that mars the domestic SD DVD (Boyle’s intended gritty aesthetics aside). I even found that contrast is slightly stronger, textures are a bit crisper, and character close-ups look more natural.
It’s worth noting that a domestic BD transfer probably won’t look a whole lot better -- after all, the import handles Boyle’s intentions with respect. All Miramax would have to do to improve the technical experience (when it debuts on Blu-ray in the States) would be to remove any traces of edge enhancement. Ultimately, fans may be willing to settle for its slightly sharper image, but this import simply doesn’t offer enough of a visual upgrade to justify a high-priced purchase.
While ‘Trainspotting’s video transfer left me cold, Sony’s pulsing Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track was engaging enough to earn back some of my affections. McGregor’s narration is crisp and clear, the addicts’ misadventures are nicely prioritized with the film’s remarkable and diverse score, and the rear speakers enhance the surreal trip sequences to great effect. The LFE-channel mainly sticks to supporting low-end bass tones in the soundtrack, but still does a fine job undergirding voices, violent outbursts, and the general chaos endured by Renton’s inner circle. On a technical note, directionality is decent, the track’s immersive qualities were spot on, and pans are steady and transparent (albeit strangely stocky at times… perhaps at Boyle’s behest). To top it all off, the soundfield finally has room to stretch out and breathe -- the standard DVD’s rather stuffy mix struggled to accurately reproduce the film’s chaotic soundscape, but this BD lossless track never sounds inadequate or subdued in any way.
I wouldn’t call ‘Trainspotting’s TrueHD track earth-shattering or revolutionary, but it is a fine example of what modern, pulpy surrealist cinema should sound like. If you’re looking to brave the import waters and need an excuse to dive in, this is it -- it sounds better than the DVD and does a fantastic job handling the eclectic mix it’s been given.
I was surprised to find this Japanese BD import included all of the significant supplemental materials that appear on Miramax’s domestic 2-disc DVD (minus the text bios and photo galleries). While the menus and titles are entirely written in Japanese, it’s a rare treat to find an Asian import that includes so many English-language features. My only real complaint is that the video content is presented in standard definition.
’Trainspotting’ is a full-throttle, kinetic glimpse into the world of heroin abuse that pushes past its stylized humor to deliver a disturbing, unsettling vision of addiction. Fans might be overjoyed to learn they can import a Blu-ray edition of the film, but anyone considering a purchase should consider the pros and cons of this particular release. While the disc features an excellent lossless audio track, it unfortunately includes an underwhelming video transfer (that’s only marginally better than the standard DVD) and a collection of hit-or-miss supplements buried in Japanese-language menus. Honestly, I would wait for this one to be released domestically and check it out then, rather than dumping a chunk of change on what amounts to a risky investment.
Thanks to Nate Boss ("n8boss87" to anyone on the message boards) for supplying this disc for review!