Danny Boyle’s second feature, Trainspotting (1996), finds the burgeoning filmmaker on slightly more typical ground in terms of thematic content—or what we’ve come to think of as more typical—than was afforded by his debut work, Shallow Grave, even while expanding on his experiments with style. Though Trainspotting’s story of Scottish drug addicts is dark in tone and the bulk of the humor is blacker than a raven’s wing at midnight, Boyle’s sense of humanity persistently creeps in around the edges. That, in fact, is what truly sets the film apart from its most obvious inspiration, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).
The connections between the two films are inescapable and obviously deliberate (you don’t set a scene in a nightclub that’s designed to be a cheap knockoff of the Korova Milk Bar from Clockwork if you’re trying to hide the influence). Mark (Ewan McGregor) and his friends—junkie and otherwise—are clearly variations on Alex (Malcom McDowell) and his droogs, but there’s a difference in that Mark and company exist in a real world that recognizes the existence of the film A Clockwork Orange, and that adds a layer to the proceedings. It’s a layer that makes the characters more pathetic than menacing. They’re a slightly silly, self-destructive imitation of a stylized fantasy—and at bargain prices. The idea of Alex diving into “the worst toilet in Scotland” to retrieve a couple heroin suppositories is preposterous. The idea of Mark doing so is all too believable, even if the scene is handled in the most fantasticated manner imaginable. And the film’s ending, designed to recall Alex’s “I was cured all right,” throws a new light on the character of Mark—its last line suggesting that there really is no Mark at all, but only a series of roles he plays by way of emulation. The question it raises is how true might that be of all of us.