At the end of Trainspotting, Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud were poised on the very cusp of the future. They never wanted to arrive at that future, since the future was already commodified and prepackaged for them, but they didn’t want to stay in the same place either. Evading death while never quite choosing life, they spent their whole existence on the edge of a precipitous pulse of energy that seemed determined to ride the wave of the present at its most precarious, eventually spilling over into the dance track, Born Slippy, by Underworld, that concludes the film, and forms its anthem and definitive musical statement. Starting with a lush, romantic, breathless sense of anticipation, this track quickly segues into big beat austerity, but the version of the track that concludes the film segues back into the opening chords just as Renton is starting to reach the end of his final monologue, anticipating and staving off the next chapter in his life in one incommensurate burst of affect Positioned at this fleeting pulse at which romantic futurity segued into a regulated present tense, Trainspotting was to cinema what its most anthemic track was to electronic music – an almost-future tense built around characters who seemed aware that even precarity was about to be wrenched from their countercultural experiences and environs, and so desperate to make the most of their precarious lifestyles while they lasted.
In other words, Trainspotting felt like one of the last films made for a youth culture, or a youth counterculture, where the future felt like a genuinely viable option and prospect, even or especially as its characters could only define that future negatively, as something that had to be forestalled and deflected through one increasingly self-destructive gesture after another. The very aesthetic of the film thus seems repellent to a sequel – or at least the very fact of a sequel seems to signal the failure of the aspirations of the film, which is perhaps why Trainspotting 2 is so haunted by the presence and spectre of Trainspotting at every moment. Twenty years later, none of the characters have committed to the future, but virtually everyone else around them has, displacing their sense of the present into a nostalgia for the original film that is so profound and pervasive that the original film often feels like a tactile presence within the film itself, the lost object that the characters continually try to touch, caress and bring close to them. You could almost say that the original film becomes the narrative that the characters try to shape out of their original experiences, especially Spud, who is continually “replaying” footage from the original in his own mind, and caressing and touching photographs that are also stills from the original, until he starts to express his elegiac tendencies by writing the short stories that inspired the original, becoming a cipher for Irvine Welsh himself and taking over from Renton as the main narrator and driving subjectivity of the narrative and atmosphere of the film at large.
As that elegiac tone might suggest, all four of the characters are right where they were twenty years ago – Spud is finally clean after having spent fifteen years on heroin, Begbie has been in prison for twenty years, Sick Boy has been living in Edinburgh for twenty years, and Renton hasn’t returned to Edinburgh for twenty years. Moreover, all of their lives have been indubitably shaped by Renton’s decision to steal their drug money at the end of the first film, a decision that not only got Renton a start in business management, but which led to Begbie and Sick Boy going down their different paths. Meanwhile, Spud spent the four thousand pounds that Renton left him on heroin, and hasn’t seen as much money since, spending his days living in the same subsidised housing where he subsisted in the original. No doubt, relationships have come and gone, while both Begbie and Spud have kids, but for the most part the quartet of characters haven’t traversed the original film, or the twenty year interim, in any meaningful way. As a result, they still feel remarkably present, and continuous with their original selves, even or especially as they’re still as mired in the tones and textures of the original film as anyone who’s interested enough to watch their sequel.
While the film may begin with Renton returning to Edinburgh, the most dramatic changes tend to be articulated around Sick Boy, who has bought and now manages a down-and-out pub in a rundown area of Edinburgh, anticipating that this neighborhood would be hit by the rising tide of gentrification, only to find that the price ceiling passed it by, leaving a pocket of working-class decay and desuetude in its wake. It’s in the apartments of this neighborhood, and the pub itself, that the most dramatic departures from the original can be felt, as Boyle divests these housing estates and working-class hangouts of even the most residual countercultural energy, setting them amidst abstracted pools of light and darkness that suffocate everything with a stylised stasis, a heightened sense of mise-en-scene, a conscious orchestration of space. Although gentrification may have passed these areas by, the camera also seems to pre-emptively gentrify everything it touches, or to be complicit with gentrification in some way, to the point where the destiny of this neighborhood seems considerably worse than to be gentrified – to be left as a shell of working-class architecture and affect to contour and supplement the gentrification taking place around it, in the same way that factories or patches of public housing will sometimes be left intact in order to imbue the surrounding wave of gentrification with a marketable authenticity and rusticity.
Within that environment, Boyle imbues every experience and exchange with the muted, anhedonic, depressive affect of the world after heroin – a perpetual and pervasive low that not even heroin could compensate or ameliorate in any way. While heroin use does come back momentarily, then, this isn’t really a relapse narrative, just as heroin isn’t a pervasive point of reference, divesting even the most amped-up moments of the driving pulse that made the original such a tightly-wound and cohesive experience. No doubt, Boyle does his best to reclaim that energy, combining canted angles, drone shots, fluorescent palettes and multiplying interfaces to almost match the anarchic energy of the first film. Yet that energy never quite crystallises into a pulse, whether because of the mounting moments of elegiac quietness, or the suffocating blankness of the spaces where the action occurs, displacing the film from itself with every effort it makes to inhabit the characters as they were twenty years ago. Tellingly, it’s the omnipresent flatscreen televisions that provide much of this momentum, as if Boyle can’t quite rely on the film on its own terms to conjure up the pulsating hyperactivity of the original, wrenching sound and image apart and then back together again in a continual effort to insist on the diegetic coherence of the film’s world.
As a result, it feels as if some great violence has been done to the original’s iconic soundtrack, which percolates through these half-articulated tableaux in a fragmented and haunted manner, as if Boyle were tentatively and achingly testing out how it sounds in the present. The effect is a bit like listening to the CD for the first time in twenty years, as Boyle doesn’t exactly reprise or discard any of the most famous tracks, but instead repurposes them as echoing, haunted, submerged, slowed-down exercises in hauntology that make you feel as if only Mark Fisher could fully articulate and evoke what is really at stake in this devolution and transformation of arguably the most iconic soundtrack of the 1990s. Dissociated at every turn from the pulse of the original, the tracks tend to occur in hyper-kinetic bursts, or stop abruptly, or find themselves muted and robbed of lyrics, never quite “accompanying” the scene in question, but never quite achieving the fully-formed autonomy of a music video, let alone the music video-cinematic hybrid of the original film.
Not surprisingly, “Born Slippy” is a particularly melancholy point of reference, slowed down and spun across nearly every scene of significance, but also cut short and denuded at certain key moments as well. Across the whole film, we never hear the harder dance segment of the song, while the only point in the film that approaches its intensity is a scene in which Renton and Sick Boy pull a con job on a loyalist gathering, turning up at a pub where a sectarian group are celebrating the Battle of the Boyne, and pickpocketing their credit cards, confidently that the PIN in most cases will be 1690. At first, they seem to have been caught out as intruders, only to improvise a loyalist anthem of their own that represents the one really sustained musical pulse in the entire film, beautifully evoking the way in which all the anarchic and subcultural elements of the original film have now been co-opted and contained by the forces of radical nationalism and ideology in the modern UK.
The ideological and aesthetic cohesion of that loyalist gathering couldn’t be more different from the end of the film, which takes place in Sick Boy’s pub. While all four of the characters follow very different trajectories over the course of Trainspotting 2, their journeys all culminate here, with a brutal fight between Begbie and Renton that has been twenty years coming. Yet all the visceral import of that fight is deflected into the dissolution of the syntax and structure of the pub itself, which loses its coordinates so quickly that it feels like the two men are fighting to maintain the pub as a shared space, rather than from any real antagonism with each other. Shooting the scene so as to defy any real sense of the four friends being in the same room, Boyle fractures and fragments the mise-en-scene with flickers of lurid green and shards of light that are quickly dissociated from the passing trains across the road to drift out across the space like free-floating strobe emissaries from an ancient rave era. Yet the sense of framing and composition is simultaneously too static for this to ever fully approach a rave aesthetic either, suspending us in an odd space between pub and rave that culminates with a showdown in a mirror room that Spud has constructed upstairs, where Renton and Begbie eventually lose all sense of space and self amidst a plethora of reflections and refractions, like a doped-up tribute to The Lady From Shanghai.
In this final showdown, the pub becomes too fractured to function as a site of either counterculture or gentrification, effectively ceasing to exist as a stable spatial entity at all. While that might sound bleak, its bleakness is presented here as the necessary precondition for remaining at the precipitously and precariously poised present tense of the original, suspending the four characters in a space that might be brutally violent, but which also manages to elide both the past and the future as reference points as effectively as Renton’s famous final monologue. Reaching back to the remote past – we learn about Renton’s first day at school, Begbie’s father, the very reason for the name Trainspotting in the first place – to capture the foreclosure of the future, this final act of the film insists upon the present tense even more bravely and anarchically than in the original. And there’s something quite bracing, in the end, about the way in which none of these four characters ever achieve adulthood, without ever holding up their arrested development as a badge of pride either, just as there’s something bracing about their continuing refusal to accept the future as a category in an era when futurity is more contested and privileged than ever, that makes Trainspotting 2 defiantly and somewhat paradoxically true to the singularity of the original.