What most people know specifically about Scotland could fill a single column in a one-sided pamphlet: it's the home to Braveheart and Groundskeeper Willie. Men are known to wear kilts and...well, that's about it. Like most moviegoers who get their usual entertainment information from the hackneyed heart of Hollywood's myopic machine, if it's not possible to forge a blockbuster from it, the subject matter is closed and considered non-existent. So any country or its people that doesn't fall within this product placement mentality is entity non grata for serious scenario discussion. Scotland is really no different than Wales or Poland...or Qatar for that matter. You can probably recognize the accent, but blanks are drawn on any cultural or human dynamic. That is why a film like The Acid House is such a revelation – and equally tough to recommend. On the one hand, it gives us a grand, glorious look at the incredibly disenfranchised and desperate lives of people living on the edge of exile in Edinburgh's seedy slums. The attention to detail, the peculiarity of the language and the depressing decay surrounding the locale combine to create a look at a world we've never really seen before in films. The only problem is, the movie tells three divergent tales about the frantic, fractious existence in this metaphysical no man's land and yet only one of the stories really connects. The other two are exercises in bleak self-loathing and crass infant comedy. As a result, The Acid House both opens our eyes to the plight of these people while closing our minds to their message. If you can accept the wealth of actual atmosphere with the lack of substantial storytelling, you will thoroughly enjoy this triptych of tales. But if you're hoping for just a little linear development or character clarity, you're raving in the wrong place.
The Acid House centers around three short stories written by the famous Trainspotting scribe Irvine Welsh. Deeply immersed in the lower middle class maze of Scottish society, Welsh opens up the weird, wounded world of these troubled troubadours and invites us to witness the lousy lessons life teaches them. Since this anthology was originally conceived as a series of separate short films for television, it's best to address them independent of one another- aside from some obvious attempts to interlink them. We begin our journey with:
The Granton Star Cause: Boab (pronounced by everyone as "Bob") is having a really bad day...a REALLY bad day. After a poor performance on the football field, his club kicks him off. When he arrives at home, his parents have an ultimatum: he has two weeks to find another place to live. Devastated, he turns to his girlfriend, Eve, for comfort. She drops the 'Dear John' bombshell on him – it's over. She's seeing someone else. Taking out his frustrations on the pay phone, he is picked up by the police and beaten in jail. When he arrives at work the next day, there is still more bad news. His job has been "relocated" and he is fired. Without prospects or a place to stay, he hits the public house for a few pints. And there he meets...God. Railing against the youth for squandering the gifts He gave him, the Omnipotent One decides to turn Bob into a pest. Sure enough, our unlucky hero spends the next 24 hours as a fly. In his insect state, Bob decides to settle a few scores, as only a bug would or could do.
A Soft Touch: Johnny and Catriona are a newlywed couple who've hit upon a really dreadful patch in their relationship. John is a subservient mess, going to his job everyday and coming home to his drug-addled, slutty wife; a woman who can barely register a single human emotion toward the man she conned into marriage. You see, Johnny felt compelled to marry Cat after he learned she was pregnant. John worships his little daughter, but doesn't dare anger Cat. Her hard assed, threatening hoodlum family members will come after him. One day a proud punk poseur named Larry moves in upstairs, and he and John strike up a quick friendship. But it's not long before Catronia is also enamored of the new neighbor. As they spend more and more time together, Johnny is left taking care of everything. But when "trouble" shows its head again, guess who Cat turns to? And guess who might just help her out?
The Acid House: Colin "Coco" Bryce is a self-absorbed football goon who spends his life in a decadent, hedonistic desire for pleasure and pacification. His less than understanding girlfriend, Kirsty, wants him to grow up. But Coco sees himself as a special lad, a "top boy", a Peter Pan of pints and poppers. One night, while tripping on acid, Coco is hit by lightning. As it would just so happen, an ambulance carrying the upper-class couple Rory and Jenny has made an emergency stop in the area. Jenny is pregnant and there is no time to get to the hospital. As the baby is born, the remaining electricity from Coco surges through the van. Suddenly, Coco is a slobbering fool. And the newborn is a smart assed jerk. That's right, in a strange twist of fate Coco is now a fetal child, while the toddler takes on all the habits of a drunken, drug-addled asshole.
Taken as a whole, The Acid House is an intriguing travelogue to Scotland's sour subdivisions, filled with burned out buildings and even more vacant dreams. Each character we meet has had the vitality voided from him or her because of the circumstances they must exist under. The oppressive climate of decay and the feeling of hopelessness make even the most mundane of activities ache with relevance. So you'd think that a film that follows a few dozens of these dire denizens would resonate with a power and personality all its own. And you'd be half right. As a look at a people and a place unlike any other, The Acid House is shocking, the kind of behind the scenes peek at homespun living that saturates its neighborhood paintings in pounds of local color. But there is a problem with being "too authentic" in your ethnic march. You can possibly loose a few legions along the way. Had the stories been smarter, filled less with literary tricks and more with raw reality (though how you could get rawer than some of the material here may be a chore) The Acid House would be a Ken Louch low comedy wrapped in a Michael Leigh family drama. As it plays, we occasionally recognize many familiar aspects of the daily grind for a Glasgow worker/wanker. But more often, the issues and interpersonal nature are as alien to us as science fiction.
This is because The Acid House is about as foreign a film you can get without actually resorting to a completely new language. The brogues that come bleating out of the characters are so extreme and unrefined that they seem to cut the air whenever someone speaks. And vocabulary is as biting as the drawl. The Scottish LOVE the "c" word, the nastiest of female put-downs, the extreme epithet that rhymes with "punt". So be prepared to hear it several hundred times throughout the course of this movie. It is said in every situation, from anger to happiness, sadness to seriousness. It is apparently so common that it is freely flung in public and used by everyone, young and old. The Scottish also have a strange parlance derived from a peculiar vernacular that incorporates old English, slang and a lot of drunken nonsense. This new dialect dictionary can be difficult to get a handle on (thankfully, the DVD carries a 'glossary' for reference and most of the dialogue is subtitled with text that you CANNOT turn off) and takes some getting used. Children are bairns, money is dosh and contractions ending in "n't" substitute the word nae for the syllabic sound. So when a character says "I didn't", they actually vocalize "I did nae". If you pay close attention, you'll get the hang of it. It is this attention to detail and effervescent infusion of local color that keeps The Acid House afloat, even as individual episodes determine to sink it straight out.
It is best to review each section individually before continuing to address the film as a whole. Since each tells a different story, employs different narrative elements to get its point across and eventually has a differing effect on the audience, specialized treatment is a must. We begin with:
The Granton Star Cause
To be fair, this is the most accomplished and complete of the three segments, a nice little allegory about utilizing your strengths to overcome your weaknesses. Welsh's wicked humor is in high gear here and there is a nice progression in the devastations that befall young Boab. Just when you think another shoe cannot drop, the loafer lands squarely on this sad sod's head. But the attempts at gross out humor (especially the uncomfortable sex scene between Boab's middle-aged parents, with all its strap-on and shite schematics) and social commentary fall a little flat. God, personified as a belligerent drunk, is perhaps too rascally to be believable. He has very insightful things to say about humans; about how they always waste the "powers" he gives them (which include confrontation, consideration and self-determination) and then complain to Heaven for help. But this pissed Pontiff is almost too angry and aggressive to be a realistic deity. And when our little loser transforms into a pile of poo's best friend, the movie seems to lose its way. It goes from a discourse on individual worth to a bunch of bug-based balderdash. It's just one revenge fantasy wish fulfillment after another all told in extreme close-up and with a great deal of first person POV pest-cam to stylize the cinematics. Yes, there is some very funny stuff here, but the abrupt ending is too unsatisfying to provide proper comic closure.
A Soft Touch
With a title that discusses both the main character and the main problem with this sequence, we are literally thrown into one of the worst relationships ever conceived for literature or film. Johnny has obviously married Catronia for two reasons: 1) he believes she is carrying his child and 2) her loud, thuggish family has more or less forced him into the position. So our main character is starting out in a position of ultimate cowardice, and matters just get worse from here. Catronia is a cow, a great leaping load of human waste that spends her waking hours in a non-stop drive to dull her senses however she can. She takes complete advantage of Johnny's good nature to screw him over every chance she gets (and with whomever she wants). When she feels threatened, her threats of "relative' retribution" are equally sinister and sad. What Johnny sees in this whore is unfathomable. And once Larry waltzes into the picture with his close-cropped hair and crude sexuality, the ending of this exercise in interpersonal pain is telegraphed explicitly. It has to be said that all the actors here are fantastic, selling the sordid nature of their characters with great gusto and no apologies. But when Johnny has a chance to escape, to stand up for himself and actually find away out from underneath the filth that is his marriage, he balks. He is the "soft touch", the yielding fool of the title, and we lose what little respect we had for him in that moment. Same goes for the film. With such an unflinchingly dreary look at this couple's connection, this middle portion of The Acid House becomes a test of tolerance and endurance. Not because it is boring or dull, but because it asks us to accept a circumstance so devoid of hope that it bleeds discouragement.
The Acid House
Ewen Bremner was the goofy, jolly imp in Trainspotting's tale of habitualized human shame, a cartoon character with a nose that seems to point in a direct 900 contradiction away from his similarly sharpened head. Therefore, he really lights up the screen in this third segment as the completely deluded dervish named Coco Bryce. His awkward gait, his little self-sayings and mini-mantras of personal dignity and delirious dyanetics are classic and he tends to act and react like a chicken with palsy. But, honestly, all Bremner aside, this is a one joke story that never really explores the boundaries of its premise. When Coco is transformed into a child, the first few funny moments are crude and carefully sarcastic, so that when we hear the newborn sexually enjoying his mother's milk, it's a wickedly warped illustration. But as the idea is elongated, it loses steam and turns into a craven, caustic creep-out. The F/X that render the tot more talkative and alert are amazing, almost completely believable in their non-CGI physicality. But again, nothing much is done with it. When Baby Coco finally speaks to his mother Jenny, he gets in a couple of good gags and then the story is over. The sub-plot with Kirsty trying to "raise" her newly veggie-stated boyfriend is very underdeveloped and doesn't pay off at all. And the message for this segment is unclear. Are we to assume that all men are kids? That all babies are wiser than their years? That women want and need to treat their significant other's like children? That this is the only way the sexes interrelate? The Acid House may be making a point about LSD unlocking your inner persona (a 'child', perhaps?) but the way it is done is not nearly explored enough.
The Acid House would probably have worked better had Welsh and his producers stuck with their first idea and let three different directors helm the stories. But instead they allowed first-time filmmaker Paul McGuigan to take the lens to all three (he originally crafted Boab's journey into the insect kingdom). As a result, McGuigan tries far too hard, hoping to give each episode its own distinct tone, while keeping visual cues (rapid cuts, cross-over editing and fast/slow motion) and design concepts similar to link the segments together. His best work is in The Acid House, where he just, more or less, directly cribs Danny Boyle's (director of Trainspotting) MTV meets IV drug use montage style to capture the madness and infinity of consciousness altering. But he is not up to the challenge of the coarse kitchen sink melodrama of A Soft Touch, and his initial offering (the one he actually made first) suffers from an overstuffed desire to impress. Different directors would have brought different tones and textures to the film, something that McGuigan's sameness cannot address.
Welsh is also at fault for thinking that these conflicting tales could actually hold together in a interrelated fashion. Bob's plight is no match for the misery suffered by Johnny, and when compared to both their problematic existences, Coco comes off as even more of an over-jazzed jerk. Besides, each story fails to fundamentally address the mess created in the narrative. Boab never discovers his inner power. Johnny is stuck in a loveless state of duress with a hideous sow of a spouse. And Coco gets to suck his tit and stay a stooge too. Maybe in their literary form (and you can really tell these tales come from carefully crafted fictions) these individual stories soar with significance and solidity. But up on the big screen, devoid of all the internal monologues and reader interpretation, these sagas overstay their welcome. As a view of that secret society called Scotland, The Acid House is eye-opening. But some of the story elements here will make those peepers close all over again.
It has to be said that The Acid House is a very good looking film, a veritable excess of color and technique. All manner of cine-magic has been used to saturate the visual palette and intensify the atmosphere of gloom and desolation. The Scottish landscape really comes alive, playing a very important part in the subtext of the story. There are, perhaps, too many edits and crazy dissolves. But the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks amazing in this clean, crisp DVD transfer.
Similar in concept to Trainspotting, The Acid House is a non-stop Top of the Pops medley of evocative songs and magnificent musical cues. From original material written specifically for the movie (an evocative song tells the story of Johnny and Cat in sad, sorrowful tones) to well-placed techno and electronica, there is a rich diversity to the soundtrack that fills the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with spectacular bass and drum dynamics. Fans of this type of aural backdrop would perhaps be better served by buying the soundtrack CD.
Beginning with the ever-present subtitles, we are helped along in our understanding of The Acid House by the wealth of bonus material Zeitgeist has included on this disc. First, there is the glossary, filled with translations of some of the Scottish slang. Since it is only one onscreen page, it doesn't address all the peculiarities involved, but it does cover most of the bases. For context, there is a wonderful interview with Irvine Welsh included. However, it is text-based and requires several button pressing page thru's to complete. Welsh, though, has a lot of interesting things to say about pre- and post- Trainspotting success and the original stories upon which these short films were based. But perhaps the best bonus feature is the sparse, but insightful commentary from Welsh himself. He eventually shuts up during the opening of Part 3, (obviously enjoying the sequence from the giggles and guffaws he offers) but before then, he provides a great deal of information about the original format of the film and some of the casting choices. He does have a tendency to get wrapped up in his own words and stories (it's his screenplay based on his short fiction) but he occasionally pulls himself outside the familiarity to be critical, and even unkind, about the awkward choices and the difficult narrative drive in his work. Along with the typical Trainspotting Redux trailer, which coattail's the previous film's obvious force, the packaging here is complete and very complimentary of the cinematic experience contained inside.
Any anthology lives or dies on the strengths of its individual episodes. Something like Four Rooms reeks of donkey dung because, even with all the supposed talent involved, no one was in control of the overall vision. That's why the film played like a group of semi-famous directors going insularly insane for the sake of the camera. The Acid House has the opposite effect. Thanks to (or is it, unfortunately because of) the decision to allow Paul McGuigan to handle all three films, the divergent stories have a cohesive webbing of scenic singularity all stemming from McGuigan's desire to tie his diverse elements together visually. But this also means, logically, that The Acid House is better in the sum of its parts than the parts themselves, which appears to be an oxymoron. With only one semi-successful stretch (the rest of the narrative's being underdeveloped or emotionally perplexing) it's hard to see how anything unified can be fashioned. But taken as a whole, The Acid House does tell us something special and particular about its time and place. It provides a glimpse into a world that most moviegoers don't know or begin to understand. Scotland, and the rough areas around Edinburgh and Glasgow seem frozen in anguish and a spirit of surrender the permeates all aspect of the society; from the dirty pubs – paint peeling off walls and floors sticky with filth, to the horrible housing projects, set up and left to rot by a government unable to fulfill its promise. Inside this alien landscape, this completely foreign parallel universe, people struggle just to get by. As an exercise in the anthology, The Acid House is less than successful. As a communal character study, it's a beacon on an unknown world.