by Mike McGranaghan

When it played in theaters last year, Trainspotting drew almost instant criticism from Bob Dole who said the film "glorified heroin." He was not alone in that criticism; other politicians and a couple op-ed writers also joined in. I was stunned then, and I'm stunned now. Trainspotting is one of the most effective anti-drug movies I've seen in a long time. Its depiction of heroin addiction is so raw and gritty that you walk away with the realization that heroin is a drug not to be messed with.

I think what the film's critics did was confuse its style with its content. Trainspotting is not your garden variety anti-drug movie. Many of them, even the good ones, tend to be preachy. Not this film. Instead, it uses some unique visuals and an irreverent sense of humor to show how low heroin users ultimately sink.

The characters are a group of Scottish youths who, in the opening scenes, are into the drug full-swing. Renton (Ewan MacGregor), in a pungant voiceover, compares heroin to "the greatest orgasm you've ever had in your life multiplied by 1000." However, he realizes it's time to kick the habit. The drug is seductive but it's also ruining his life. Renton literally boards himself up in his apartment so he will not be able to go in search of drugs. Once withdrawl sets in, he tears the door down and surrenders himself to his craving.

Renton tries to convince his friends to get clean as well. They include Sick Boy, a Sean Connery-obsessed guy who agrees to kick the habit just to show Renton how easy he thinks it is; Begbie, a good-time kind of fellow with a quick temper and a deranged mind; and Spud, the goofy kid who generally just goes along for the ride. They try several methods of cleansing their systems, including lodging themselves in the middle of a barren countryside. Renton soon realizes that not all the members of the group are as serious about getting clean as he is.

Trainspotting does not go through the usual lose-everything-and-see-the-light plotting of most anti-drug films. No big speeches, no dramatic confrontations, no heavy-handed lecturing. Instead, director Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave) employs some surreal visuals to suggest the levels of depravity Renton reaches. Most memorable among them is a scene where he enters "the worst restroom in Scotland," a place so filthy the germs have germs. He has given himself an opium enema and needs a bathroom - any bathroom - immediately. While there, he drops his drugs down the muck-covered toilet. Desperate, he plunges his hand into the bowl, searching for them. Soon his whole arm is in there, and eventually (here's the surreal part) he dives completely into the toilet to retrieve his drugs. The moment is harrowing and uncomfortable, perfectly showing how the craving for heroin has caused Renton to lose all dignity.

There are several other scenes like this in the film. I wish there had been more. Trainspotting is at its best when it goes over-the-top. Heroin is such a scary and evil drug that it warrants the kinetic treatment it gets here. The no-holds-barred humor also adds to the poignancy of the movie. One scene involving a character who loses control of his bodily functions in bed has a payoff that is both sickening and darkly hilarious. This is not a film everybody. Nonetheless, by mixing surreal images with wicked black humor, Trainspotting conveys the feeling of being trapped in a funhouse that's no longer any fun. It does not glorify heroin; it stands on the rooftops and curses the drug's name.

( out of four)

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