Renton, deeply immersed in the Edinburgh drug scene, tries to clean up and get out, despite the allure of the drugs and influence of friends.
A wild, freeform, Rabelaisian trip through the darkest recesses of Edinburgh low-life, focusing on Mark Renton and his attempt to give up his heroin habit, and how the latter affects his relationship with family and friends: Sean Connery wannabe Sick Boy, dimbulb Spud, psycho Begbie, 14-year-old girlfriend Diane, and clean-cut athlete Tommy, who's never touched drugs but can't help being curious about them...
Renton is an Edinburgh lad with a heroin addiction problem. His best mates are: somewhat dimwitted but good-hearted Spud, also a heroin addict; con man Sick Boy, also a heroin addict who has steadfast opinions on the most renowned British actors; and Tommy, a clean cut athlete who doesn't use. The likelihood of Renton, Spud and/or Sick Boy leading Tommy astray are higher than the other way around as problems in Tommy's life resulting in him wanting to use are more likely than any of Renton, Spud or Sick Boy having a reason to follow Tommy's clean example. Renton, Spud and Sick Boy often use with Allison, the mother of an infant, they, including baby Dawn, congregating in Swanney's drug den. They also need to steal and rob to support their habit, those activities often with the assistance of their criminal acquaintance Begbie, whose violent tendencies can be ignited on the slightest provocation. Despite Renton, Spud and Sick Boy believing there is no better feeling than being high, Renton truly does want to quit using, or so he tells himself. The struggles Renton have in trying to get clean are presented. He may feel that other priorities in his life may help him, such as the love at first sight feelings he has for Diane, who he sees across a nightclub room but who may not be all she appears at first glance. Renton probably realizes that he can never get clean in his current environment, which includes hanging around with Spud, Sick Boy, Begbie, Allison and Swanney, but getting out from their influence may not be as easy as just physically leaving.
- Set in Edinburgh, the film begins with Mark Renton's (Ewan McGregor) narration as he and his friend, Spud (Ewen Bremner) sprint down Princes Street, pursued by security guards. Renton states that unlike people who 'choose life' (traditional families, materialistic possessions and financial stability), he decided live life as a heroin addict. The rest of Renton's close circle of football enthusiast friends are introduced: con-artist Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), clean-cut athlete Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and sociopath, Frank Begbie (Robert Carlyle), whom along with Tommy, has decided not to do heroin and criticizes his friends regularly for their lifestyle choice. Sick Boy, Spud and Renton are all heroin addicts who spend their days shooting up in their drug dealer, Swanney's (Peter Mullan) flat. Swanney is often referred to as "The Mother Superior" by the guys.
One day, Renton decides to give up heroin. He decides to employ Sick Boy's method of locking himself in a cheap rented room with enough food, equipment and supplies to endure the withdrawal. Realizing he needs one last high to get him through the night, he breaks himself out of his room and buys opium rectal suppositories from dealer, Mikey Forrester (Irvine Welsh). After this final hit (and a nasty spell of diarrhea), Renton returns to the cheap room to finish the process. He later goes to a nightclub with the gang, noticing that his sex drive has returned with a vengeance. He eventually leaves with a young woman named Diane (Kelly Macdonald). After having sex together, Diane refuses to sleep in the same room as Renton and forces him to sleep in the hallway on a sofa. In the morning, Renton realizes that Diane is in fact a 15 year old schoolgirl and the flatmates sitting around the breakfast table are in fact, her parents. Horrified, Renton tries to shake off the incident but remains friends with Diane, who threatens to tell the police that Renton had sex with her despite being underage.
Tommy is dumped by his girlfriend Lizzy (Pauline Lynch) after a string of events unintentionally initially started by Renton. Renton had borrowed a sex tape of Tommy & Lizzy, without their consent, hiding it in the box of a football tape. Lizzy angrily believes that Tommy had mistakenly returned the tape to the video store. Tommy gets Sick Boy, Spud and Renton to join him on a walk in the Scottish highlands at the end of a train line but the guys are reluctant, believing they're being punished by Tommy for the hard time he's receiving from Lizzy. Tommy tries to convince them that they'll be getting fresh air and seeing the great outdoors of their country but Renton retorts, saying that Scottish culture is highly unappreciated by the rest of the world. At that point, Sick Boy, Spud and Renton decide to use heroin again and a broken-hearted Tommy asks to try it to see why they like it so much, despite Renton's reluctance.
One day during a heroin-induced stupor, the gang are interrupted by Allison (a fellow heroin addict) who is screaming hysterically because her infant child, Dawn has died from neglect. All are shell-shocked, especially Sick Boy who is implied to be the baby's father. Something crashes in Sick Boy and he becomes more nihilistic than ever, living only to feed his and his friends' addiction.
Renton and Spud are later caught stealing from a book shop and are pursued by security guards, as seen in the beginning of the film. Sick Boy alludes the police despite the theft being his idea. Due to prior convictions, Spud is sent to prison whereas Renton is put on a Drug Intervention Programme and given methadone. Despite support from friends and family, Renton becomes increasingly bored and depressed and escapes to Swanney's flat where he takes a particularly strong hit and nearly dies. At a local emergency room, Renton is brought out of his trip and his parents pick him up. Determined to make him kick, they lock him in his room so he can beat his addiction cold turkey. As Renton lies in bed going through severe withdrawal symptoms, he hallucinates that Diane is singing to him, friends are giving him advice and Allison's dead baby is crawling on the ceiling. The hallucination sequence is intercut with weird, imagined scenes from a TV game show, with Dale Winton asking Renton's parents questions about HIV. Renton is finally woken from his nightmares and is told by his parents that he needs to get tested. Despite years of sharing syringes with other drug addicts, Renton's test comes back negative.
Clean of heroin, Renton decides to visit Tommy who, by now, is lost in his heroin addiction and has contracted HIV. He's living in a filthy flat, with graffiti on the door proclaiming he has AIDS. Renton gives Tommy a little money to get by. On Diane's advice, Renton moves to London and gets a job as a property letting agent. He begins enjoying his new life of sobriety but it's short-lived after Begbie's involved in an armed robbery. He turns up at Renton's flat, using it to hide out, disrupting Renton's life with his freeloading and slovenly ways. One day Begbie has Renton lay a bet on a horse race and it hits, coming in with enough money for them to enjoy a brief period of revelry. At the dance club they go to, Begbie finds a woman whom he tries to have sex with, only to find that the person is a transvestite. He angrily tells Renton that he's not gay and attacks Renton when he suggests it could have turned into a beautiful night for Begbie.
Sick Boy, who now sees himself as a well-connected pimp and drug pusher, also shows up on Renton's doorstep. Renton's 'friends' make his life more miserable, stealing from him and trashing his flat. Sick Boy steals and sells Renton's television, despite the fact that it was a rental and then has the temerity to ask Renton if he wants to sell his passport. Renton takes his passport and stores it in a train station locker. Seeking to rid himself of them, Renton gives them a flat he's responsible for, however, Renton doesn't charge them rent to live there. Their squatting is discovered when Renton's boss finds a couple willing to live there. However, at this point the three have to return to Edinburgh when they learn Tommy has died due to toxoplasmosis.
Back home, they meet Spud who's been released from prison. Sick Boy suggests a risky but profitable heroin transaction via Mikey Forrester. Sick Boy needs Renton's help to foot half of the initial £4,000 to buy the supply. After the purchase, Renton reluctantly checks the purity by injecting himself and declaring it to be high quality. The four then travel back to London to sell the drugs to a dealer. On the bus down, Begbie is extremely nervous and uptight since the police are still searching for him. Renton promises himself one final hit before they reach London and ponders if he'll become addicted again. The meet the dealer in a hotel room and after a purity check and a bit of haggling, they agree on £16,000. They all go to a pub to celebrate, all of them friendlier and happier than they usually are, and discuss their plans to spend their share of the money. Renton suggests to Spud that they steal the money and run as Begbie & Sick Boy get drinks in. Spud is too scared of Begbie to consider it. Renton believes that neither Begbie nor Sick Boy deserve the money. As Begbie heads back to the table with another round of pints he bumps into another patron and spills much of the beer he bought. When the man apologizes, Begbie turns violent and smashes the man's face with one of the glasses. As he moves in to cut the man with a knife, he slashes Spud's hand. Begbie becomes more ominously sociopathic and demands that Renton light a cigarette for him. Realizing that he's probably matured more than his friends and, with the exception of Spud, they're more of a danger to him now, Renton decides to leave them while taking the money.
Early in the morning, Renton wakes up before anyone else and takes the money from Begbie, leaving quietly. Spud sees him leave but says nothing; Renton gives him an affirmative nod. After Begbie discovers the money has gone, he trashes the hotel room in a violent rage that alerts the police, presumably leading to his arrest.
Renton walks out into London and vows to live the traditional, stable life he talked about in the beginning of the film. In voiceover, he talks about how Begbie has become too dangerous and that Sick Boy would have stolen the money from everyone if he'd thought to do it first. He does feel some remorse for leaving Spud behind and leaves him £2,000 in the locker where he'd been hiding his passport. In the final scene, Spud retrieves the money Renton left for him.