A gaunt 20-something kneels in front of an overflowing public toilet, his hands fishing feverishly through its indescribably filthy contents as though prospecting for gold. Dry-retching but determined, he submerges his head into the muck…then his upper body…and finally, unbelievably, his legs, until he vanishes entirely from sight – and that’s when things really get strange…
It’s one of the most infamous episodes in movie history, but Trainspotting‘s aptly-named “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene – which sees Ewan McGregor’s Renton go to unspeakable lengths to recover a pair of opium-laced suppositories – has more to offer than mere shock value.
Aside from setting the tone for the rest of Danny Boyle’s tragicomic adaptation of Irving Walsh’s bestselling novel, this scene perfectly captures the spirit of an entire generation, and presents a stylistic roadmap that filmmakers are still following 25 years later.
Charting the dizzying highs and crushing lows of Generation X
When it hit theatres back in February 1996, Trainspotting was as controversial as it was critically and commercially successful. Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge were accused of glorifying drug use and romanticising the bleak lives of Renton and fellow heroin addicts Sick Boy and Spud via the film’s slick editing, banger-laden soundtrack and razor-sharp wit.
But Trainspotting wouldn’t work as another dour morality play about the dangers of addiction. It’s not an “issue movie”; it’s a snapshot of the drug-fuelled, punk rock, fuck-you-old-man energy that coursed through the veins of Generation X – and that meant portraying the fleeting euphoria of taking drugs just as vividly as the lingering despair.
The Worst Toilet in Scotland scene epitomises this dichotomy; the putrid reality of Renton’s substance dependence – literally swimming through shit for his next fix – juxtaposed with the hallucinatory fantasy of scoring. As Renton exclaims “Yes, you fucking dancer!” in pure ecstasy upon securing his wayward opium suppositories – to him, the climax of a dream-like quest through a crystal-blue ocean – it’s impossible not to share his elation. Sure, drugs ruin lives (including Renton’s) …but damn if they don’t have their moments.
Of course, these moments don’t last long. Back in the real world, Renton squelches home to wean himself off heroin with the juiced-up suppositories and it quickly becomes clear he’s just another excrement-coated junkie kidding himself about getting clean. Like the rest of his hard-living, hard-dying generation, Renton’s existence amounts to a shot of brief exhilaration followed by a long, bitter chaser of regret and squalor – and for all its intoxicating charms, Trainspotting never glosses over this.
A new, exhilarating brand of moviemaking
And make no mistake: Trainspotting is intoxicating – yes, even the Worst Toilet in Scotland scene – and it’s largely down to Boyle’s bravura directing.
Alongside fellow 90s enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino, Boyle effectively fashioned a template for a supercharged style of storytelling that relies on bombastic visuals and handheld camera work, conspicuous editing techniques, and a superlative assortment of licensed tunes.
The result is an exhilarating, propulsive experience like Trainspotting which renders even the most shocking, venal subject matter not just palatable, but downright fun – and this gleefully anarchic quality is probably why Trainspotting has spawned so many imitators over the years.
Because if Boyle can transform Renton’s grimy ordeal into a transcendent spectacle that marries the profane with the beautiful (grimy toilet stall gives way to piercing, abstract undersea depths) and high art with popular entertainment (“Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen segues neatly into “Deep Blue Day” by Brain Eno), all bets are off.
It’s almost as if Boyle was throwing down the gauntlet to his fellow filmmakers with The Worst Toilet in Scotland scene, challenging them to match his creative audacity and verve. If so, it’s a clarion call that’s been answered by the likes of Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn in the years since.
Cinema’s most scatological landmark scene
Trainspotting’s Worst Toilet in Scotland scene is as viscerally effective now as it was back in 1996. Director Danny Boyle has achieved more here than merely an exercise in scatological black humour, though. He’s bottled the very essence of the film’s Gen X target audience, all while pioneering an electrifying new approach to filmmaking that continues to influence cinema today. Not a bad effort by half, considering it’s a scene about a junkie diving head first into a bog…
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