A review requested by Aaron Loehrlein, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I first saw the 1996 film Trainspotting in 2001, as a 19-year-old film school undergraduate, which is exactly the right place, stage of life, and point in history to have first seen it, and I will confess that I'm not completely confident that I've ever gotten quite the proper critical distance from it. Is director Danny Boyle's sophomore feature still his best, 20 years and nine films later? Maybe, maybe not, but it's without doubt the one I'm still the most jazzed by - it falls in exactly the right sweet spot in his career, with enough experience to correct for the at-times strained and overdetermined coolness of 1994's Shallow Grave, but still stylistically fearless in a way that Boyle would outgrow after his shockingly bad third film, 1997's A Life Less Ordinary. It's not youthful enthusiasm, quite - Boyle was 39 years old when Trainspotting premiered - but it does have the sense of "I need to do everything right now, in case I don't ever get to do this again" that one associates with the films of hot-blooded youth.

On top of all this, it's also one of cinema's greatest studies of addiction, and for most of the same reasons of no-holds-barred style. Most movies on the topic are to some degree or another, joyless slogs, on purpose: since I first saw them right around the same time, I always think of Trainspotting in connection with Requiem for a Dream, one of the most savagely unhappy films of the 2000s, but you could just as easily look to The Man with the Golden Arm or Days of Wine and Roses or Clean and Sober. Trainspotting is 100% not; it is a bravura, catchy, fun movie - as fun, anyways, as a movie could conceivably be while including a scene in which the protagonist has a nightmare about the infant he allowed to die of starvation, come back as a grotesquely-animated corpse. I don't know that it's the only film to achieve this, but it's the only one I've ever seen that manages to be both A) completely aware of how much drug users enjoy using drugs, and ready to communicate their pleasure to us, and B) absolutely critical of drugs as a life-destroying force of evil. As it tells us right out, during one of the many ripe, frantic monologues given to the main character Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor, in his star-making role): "People think it's all about misery and desperation and death and all that shit which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. After all, we're not fucking stupid."

The result is one of the most energetic British movies of the 1990s, an especially energetic era for cinema. The whole film is full of gestures that could easily come across as overblown "look at me!" twaddle (onscreen titles, fantasy sequences, arch line deliveries shaped by ironic cutting), if it wasn't coming at such a relentless speed, giving the impression that the whole thing is a blast from Renton's overclocked POV, suggesting his attempts to cope with and compartmentalise the real world in between his beatific spells of heroin use. Boyle and company set the mood off perfectly with a great one-two punch: first comes Iggy Pop's anthem "Lust for Life", giving the movie the quick pulse of a trapped bird from literally its first instant, second comes the first and most famous of Renton's chatty voiceovers, rattling off all the trappings of life in respectable society that he and his friends happily avoid in their communitarian embrace of heroin. These list monologues are a key part of Trainspotting's strategy: McGregor rattles them off fast and forcefully, leaving the impression that he's channeling the words more than listening to them. There's a mechanical desperation that colors these monologues, the sense of a mind not in command of itself, and in the film's last moments, when Renton repudiates the first monologue using the exact same rat-a-tat energy, it sneakily implies that all alone, his tragedy hasn't been that he's hooked on a dangerous chemical, but that he can turn the same self-destructive energy onto anything, whether he's sober or not.

The most memorable parts of the are all about using its ecstatic technique - primarily the speed-demon editing by Masahiro Hirakubo especially, though Brian Tufano's shiny-ugly cinematography matters a lot too, as does the rhythm of the film's soundtrack - creating an objective parallel to Renton's subjectivity: at one point, there are foreshortened close-ups of drug paraphernalia, indicating the heightened sense of how each moment of the hit feels; the whole rhythm of the movie, fast then slow and then disjointed with ellipses, suggests a mirror to highs, lows and lost time. But for such a craft-heavy movie, it's surprising how thoroughly written this is; John Hodge's adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel is thick with sharp quips and florid language alike, giving a very impressive cast quite a lot to work with in the creation of their subculture of wiry, nervous sorts.

To look at it, one would think that this was all too literate for its own good, but Hodge transforms the evocative, slangy language into a stylised patois that creates a perfectly self-contained world for the whole movie, and the actors all find their own way into the dialogue that helps them create highly distinctive characters, even though they're all playing similar physical types (skinny, with a hard time standing still), speaking from a shared vocabulary and regional accent. A hell of a cast it is, too: besides McGregor, Trainspotting was ground zero for the careers of Robert Carlyle and Kelly MacDonald, as well as a career highlight for Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller, both of whose performances suggest brighter futures than they ended up enjoying (Miller especially: his lean, at times animalistic performance is the best in the film after McGregor's).

The whole film is a showy balancing act, with the ebullient creativity of the first half (masking suffering and desperation that seeps out in the grotty sets and hair-trigger anger of many of the characters) giving way to bitterness and cruelty in the second, as Renton starts to resent the people that he's built his life around (but without losing any of the giddy speed and sense of humor from before). Not every choice Boyle and Hodge and the rest make plays out: the shift from the almost plotless early going, watching how Renton and company inhabit or fail to inhabit their lives, into the more driving crime narrative of the final half-hour, makes sense, but it's a rough transition, and not entirely papered-over by the possibility that the deflation the film undergoes further mirrors Renton's experience, irritably working the heroin out of his system. And in a film that makes this many bold choices, a of them have to fall flat: for me, it's the use of Lou Reed in general, but "Perfect Day" in particular, that feels much too obvious given how perfectly the rest of the soundtrack works, and not even the "fuck the squares" energy of the movie can forgive a drawn-out gag involving diarrhea on bedsheets. But there missteps Trainspotting makes are few and far between, separated by some truly ingenious, creative filmmaking. It's at the very least, one of the highlights of 1990s cinema, and one of the few films to come out in the live-wire let's-copy-Tarantino era of low-budget filmmaking that establishes its own complete and self-contained identity.