It may seem strange, but I never really thought Trainspotting was about drugs. Sure, its protagonists are bottom of the barrel junkies, but I never felt that the story of four wastrels muddling their way through petty crimes and grand schemes in 1980s Edinburgh was meant to provide a valuable lesson about addiction. Danny Boyle's film definitely doesn't spare you the squalor and devastation of drug use, but I think that Boyle's black comedy is about more than crime than drugs. I happen to think that Trainspotting is about the cost of evolution (both of the personal and non-personal variety) and that the message is wrapped up in one shining example:
Mark Renton, as played by today's Their Best Role nominee, Ewan McGregor. Renton was only the third major role for McGregor, and it marked his second collaboration with Boyle after the thriller Shallow Grave. Of course, the story of the fallout between the actor and the director is one that still breaks my film nerd heart. Mainly because McGregor and Boyle were made for each other, and we can only hope that time will heal all wounds, and that the two will one day work together again -- but let's get back to the our lovable little junkie.
Thankfully, most of us aren't personally familiar with the economic struggles of living in 1980's Scotland, so the ability to relate to the rise of Mark Renton all depends on your 'tour guide' -- and this is where McGregor comes in. It may be unsophisticated, but I think most audiences still need someone to root for when they go to the movies. The person doesn't have to be perfect, but if you don't care about what happens to at least one of those faces on screen, then frankly what's the point of spending your time and money?
What's remarkable about McGregor as the irredeemable liar, thief, junkie, and general scoundrel is that through his performance and his natural god-given charisma, he manages to convey the slightest glimmer of a conscience in Renton -- and in Boyle's story, a glimmer is the best you're going to get. McGregor's performance dances around being a truly good person, but Boyle never makes it that easy for you to like Renton. But just like the people on screen, McGregor makes you compromise your usual judgments about right and wrong, and while it shouldn't be easy to like a Lolita-loving, unrepentant junkie, somehow McGregor makes you care -- if only for just for a minute.
McGregor has never been afraid to take chances with his career, and he took on roles that most young actors would have avoided like the plague. Over the course of his career, he has done everything from musicals, bizarre art films, to perhaps his most daring move of all: he was Obi Wan Kenobi. McGregor has never shied from roles that demanded more of him as an actor, and he was never willing to take easy 'leading man' parts for the sake of some box-office -- and his turn as Renton was the beginning of that career path. Over the course of the last 15 years, McGregor has flirted with being on the A-list, but even though he's not a household name, he still works with some of the most interesting directors around -- not too shabby.
So in the midst of a career with its fair share of critically acclaimed roles and personal favorites (trust me when I tell you I struggled long and hard over whether or not to hand the title to Catcher Block), when I think of McGregor's work, I always come back to Renton. Maybe the easiest way to sum up is in those final moments of Trainspotting when you watch Renton quickly walking along the street towards the camera, and a variation of the infamous 'Choose Life' speech begins, but the tone has changed. Suddenly, Renton (McGregor) is looking forward to all the things he used to reject, and there is the smallest change in McGregor's expression; it changes everything. The smile that was charming takes on an almost sinister vibe, and it starts to sink in that a brand new Renton has been unleashed upon the world; he's not any less screwed up than the last one, but this one's got a plan.
Warning: Contains language that is NSFW
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