Director Danny Boyle has made some of the most impactful films of our lifetime. Perhaps best known for Slumdog Millionaire (2008), for which he won the Oscar for Best Director, his films are known for taking the audience on a deeply emotional journey punctuated with rousing sounds and images that can both delight and disturb our senses. This is abundantly true when it comes to his film Trainspotting (1996).
While all great film directors have a unique visual style that helps tell a story in the most visceral way possible, Boyle’s visual style for Trainspotting is a commentary to either support the film’s battle cry of “Choose life!” or show the opposite, characters actively choosing death. Every visual element, from imagery, camera angles, colors to scatological elements, all tell the story of how the characters are either choosing life or death. Let’s take a look at some of the most striking visual elements, from the first image to the last.
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A bustling Edinburgh sidewalk on a grey day. The camera is low, maybe sitting on the ground. The image is silent for a split second, then we see Renton’s (Ewan McGregor) feet fall into frame, as if he jumped over the camera. The drums in Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” pound in rhythm with Renton’s feet. Camera cuts to Renton and Spud’s (Ewen Bremmer) faces as they run for their lives, being chased by men in suits. Renton begins his “Choose life” mantra, taking us into his state of mind, giving us all the life advice he’s rejected: “Choose a job, choose a career, choose a family.” Renton and Spud’s clothing is a mix of dirty grey and brown that matches the city’s dingy street and walls implying these young men are products of the grimy streets. When Renton is almost hit by a car and rolls over the hood, he stops moving for the first time. He breaks the fourth wall to look right into our eyes and give a devilish grin. We see he’s a lucky son of a bitch and immediately want to get on board with his journey to “Choose life,” but he’s clearly going in the opposite direction.
Boyle accomplishes several things with this opening sequence. One, he tells us these young men are street urchins, up to no good as only criminals run this fast. We don’t know yet exactly what they are running from, but the intensity of their escape implies that it’s pretty serious. Two, he introduces our hero, Renton, a young man who is able to dodge death and have a sense of humor about it. Three, he establishes the gritty world of the film, a place where death might be just around the corner, but Renton is one step ahead – for now. The next series of scenes will depict Renton getting closer and closer to the grave.
The Color Red
The color of blood, red is often used in film to represent danger. In Trainspotting, red represents sex, drugs, death and all other things that won’t help Renton “Choose life.” In the scene where Renton purchases drugs from Mother Superior (Peter Mullen), he is bathed in red light. The scene where Renton takes drugs with Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Allison (Susan Vidler) at their flat has a thick red shag carpet.
In the scene where Renton goes to a nightclub called Volcano, the exterior is painted red. There Renton meets Diane (Kelly Macdonald), a sexually empowered young woman with a red coat who verbally intimidates Renton before taking him home for a sexual encounter. While sex could be seen as a way to “Choose life” because it could lead to a baby, Renton is shocked to see Diane the next morning dressed in her school uniform. The visual informs both Renton (and us) that she is underage – a very dicey and dangerous situation.
Later in the film, when Renton overdoses, he does so on a red carpet. At the hospital, he’s wheeled on a gurney with a red tarp. In these examples, the color red functions as a stop sign, telling the characters (and the audience) to stop and take caution. This is as close to choosing death as one can get.
The Color Green
Boyle uses the color green to represent the film’s main theme of “Choose life.” It’s also the color of sobriety, health and innocence. When we first meet Dawn, Sick Boy and Allison’s baby, she he bathed in green light. Another example of the color green is when Renton detoxes at his parents’ house. His mother, wearing a green smock, brings him pea soup. His bedroom door is also green. The color green is literally a green light for choosing life.
Low and Sinking Camera Angles
When Renton and the other characters are on drugs, the camera is placed very close to the ground or on the ground to show the characters’ life force sinking as they get closer to death – the opposite of the film’s motto of “Choose life.” When Renton overdoses, Mother Superior is standing above him, as if he is looking down into Renton’s grave. Boyle continues this sunken point of view, framed with red carpet, until the nurse at the hospital revives him.
Early in the film, after Renton inserts opium suppositories into his rectum, he must find a toilet, leading him to the “worst toilet in Scotland.” The toilet or human waste receptacle, becomes a symbol for Renton’s body – just a place to flush down waste. This is one more step toward choosing death.
The sh*t really hits the fan – so to speak – in the scene when Spud, who lost control of his bowels in bed, takes the soiled sheet into the dining area where Gail (Shirley Henders) and her family are eating beans for breakfast. A tug of war ensues over the sullied sheet and the excrement is accidentally flung at Gail and her parents. It’s disgusting, but also an example of dark humor.
Boyle employs this scatological motif to show the downside of heroin and how the drug reduces a person down to the basest of elements on the road to choosing death.
Characters in Profile
Boyle often shoots characters in profile when they behave badly as if they don’t deserve to show their entire face, because they are actively choosing death. In the scene where Renton and his buddies go on a hike in the Scottish highlands, Tommy (Kevin McKidd) suggests the men should be proud of being Scottish. But Renton isn’t having it. He says that being Scottish is, “the lowest of the low.” His self-esteem is in the gutter and Boyle only shows half his face to drive home the idea that he feels like half a man and his lifeforce is dwindling.
This is also the case when Spud is on the job interview and admits he lied on his application. Boyle only shows half his face, implying he isn’t fully alive.
Renton’s Childhood Bedroom
Renton’s parents lock him into his childhood bedroom so he can come off heroin. His room hasn’t changed since he was a wee lad and the wallpaper displays various trains. As soon as he begins the detox process, he begins having nightmarish hallucinations. As the walls appear to stretch and lengthen, the trains get longer and longer, demonstrating how long the detox process feels to Renton – endless. After seeing visions of his various friends, Renton is visited by baby Dawn who crawls on the ceiling. He screams in horror when the baby appears to turn its head 360 degrees. This scene is brutally effective in showing Renton’s disturbing interior world as his body withdraws from the poison but it is necessary for him to get back on the road of choosing life.
Renton has ripped off his mates and taken the duffle bag of cash, escaping while everyone except Spud was sleeping. A long shot shows Renton walking across a city bridge. The bridge represents his transition into a more normal, straight life, from choosing death to choosing life. His monologue explains he’s going to be better, he’s going to be, “just like you.” The camera is now close on his face. When we met him at the beginning of the movie, he was running, like a scared little boy. Now, he’s walking tall, like a confident man who’s chosen life. Same devilish grin. The camera closes in on his face until it blurs out of focus. We can’t make his features out anymore, because he’s earned the right to blend into the crowd, just like one of us.
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