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The one before Trainspotting
The Trainspotting poster competed with Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss for wall space in my typical late-90s college dorm. Here’s the ubiquitous poster:
I remember being confused by this. Trainspotting is about heroin, the destroyer of worlds, and despite the upbeat soundtrack, it’s not inspiring. The movie wallows in the filth and degradation of heroin addiction and invokes the specter of contracting AIDS, the #1 fear of 90s kids. We’re a little different from subsequent generations who are raw-dogging Tinder dates. We grew up in a time when AIDS was a death sentence shrouded in cruel stigma. It afflicted even innocent children like us (e.g., Ryan White), who were further victimized by bigots who ran amok, unchecked by social media, which didn’t exist back then. If I ever tried heroin, I would not be like Renton (Ewan McGregor), who mostly evades serious consequences. I would be Tommy (Kevin McKidd), the non-addict of the bunch, who thought he’d just casually give heroin a try after a rough breakup and then immediately contracts AIDS. Like Tommy, I would die on a filthy, bare mattress on the floor of a burned-out apartment, and my disgusted neighbors would eventually find my body next to a surprisingly well-fed cat. Trainspotting was pure, uncut terror, and it drove me away from hard drugs with the strength of a million D.A.R.E. programs. I didn’t understand why the guys living in my dorm wanted a reminder of lonely and disgusting deaths as a backdrop for guzzling Natty Ice.
I’m dragging my feet, trying to delay getting to Shallow Grave, the spiritual precursor to Trainspotting and, if I’m being honest, a movie that excites me less. Is there a reason to watch Shallow Grave when you can instead use that time to rewatch Trainspotting? Well, maybe you want to see the evolution of the director, Danny Boyle. You can draw straight lines from a dozen elements of Shallow Grave to Trainspotting. Germs of ideas in the former bloom into something more polished and less campy in the latter. Compare the editing; use of music; shots of scenery whizzing by at ground level; Ewan McGregor voiceovers that bookend the movies; characters (McGregor is essentially the same character, just a bit skinnier in the one where he’s addicted to heroin); and plots, namely, friends doublecrossing each other for a pile of money.
If you love Ewan McGregor, this is a chance to see him as a less polished actor. (But that’s not much of a reason to watch Shallow Grave, is it? Come watch an old movie where the actor is still figuring things out!) He plays Alex, one of three awful roommates. The other two are David (Christopher Eccleston) and Juliet (Kerry Fox). The roommates are hideous mean girls who interview/torment a series of potential roommates like disturbed children casually pulling wings off butterflies. They eventually find Hugo (Keith Allen), who claims to be a writer, but doesn’t have any accoutrements you’d expect a writer to have, not even a manuscript. He’s likely some kind of criminal since he has a large suitcase filled with £50 notes and two killers hot on his trail.
Hugo moves into the room and dies almost immediately. After a few days, the three roommates break down his door to find his naked body, swathed dramatically in scarlet sheets. Alex digs through his belongings and finds needles, baggies of heroin, and the money. Instead of reporting the death and relinquishing the cash to the authorities, the trio buries Hugo in the woods in the namesake shallow grave.
Alex insists they saw off Hugo’s hands and feet and bash out his teeth to prevent identification of his body. (I get the hands and teeth, but why the feet? Who gets identified by their feet? Hobbits?) No one wants to do the dirty work, so they draw straws. This experience haunts the loser, and inevitably, this poor decision leads to worse decisions and cascading violence.
Ok, I figured it out. Why should you watch Shallow Grave when you can just as easily see Trainspotting, which is superior in every way from its catchy soundtrack featuring iconic songs from Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Underworld; clever editing that propels the movie along and shows that all roads lead to heroin; a squad of fascinating characters including Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who perfectly personifies blind, pointless rage and is the reason I’m wary of Scotsmen to this day, and precocious Diane, played by a 19-year-old Kelly McDonald in scenes that should make us all feel a bit uneasy. Everything--especially characters--is bigger and better in Trainspotting. So why should you choose to watch the other movie? The Trainspotting poster tells us why: because it beats “sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food in your mouth, rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself.” Why should you watch Shallow Grave? Simply because you choose to, and making decisions beats making none. This is a fact known to anyone who has spent 45 minutes deciding what to watch on Netflix before giving up and going to bed. And to heroin fiends, I suppose.
Written by John Hodge; Directed by Danny Boyle