Director: Jon S. Baird
Cast: James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell
Length: 97 minutes
How much are you allowed to enjoy a film like Filth before you ought to accept that deep down you just might be a slightly terrible person? Granted, there’s nothing wrong with a little schadenfreude, but I really have no excuse for how hard I was laughing during a scene in which an officer of the law blackmails an underage girl into performing fellatio. I blame James McAvoy and that delightfully cloying smirk of his. I can’t say I’ve ever had aspirations to be a crooked cop, but McAvoy’s Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is at least as bad as Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant and he makes it all look like so much fun. Even in the film’s final third, where the ugliness of Filth at last overwhelms its humour, the laughter doesn’t catch in your throat because you feel that Bruce has gone too far. It catches because you realise the extent of the inner turmoil which causes Bruce to lash out at those around him. This is a funny, grotesque and surprisingly sad portrait of a truly sadistic sociopath – and it’s covered in the fingerprints of its source material’s author, Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh.
The plot exists largely to provide structure to what is essentially a character study. The corrupt, bigoted, womanising, sadomasochistic coke addict Bruce Robertson is in line for a promotion, which he believes will help him win back his estranged wife and daughter. He attempts to get this promotion by undermining all his competitors through lies and manipulation, while applying questionable methods to crack a brutal murder case. Though the story has multiple threads, the film remains cohesive by placing emphasis on what its events say about the monstrous anti-hero at the centre of it all. The film develops a surprisingly strong emotional core as it delves into Bruce’s troubled mind to reveal a psyche wracked with deep-rooted feelings of guilt and inadequacy. We see Bruce do a lot of despicable things in Filth but many of the most unsettling scenes take place entirely in his own head, where we see him engage in some horrifyingly trippy sessions with Jim Broadbent’s eccentric psychiatrist. This seems like a mind which never gives itself a moment’s peace.
As sleazy as Filth may be, it simply has too much humanity to be dismissed as a work of shock cinema
On his second feature film, Jon S. Baird directs his own fantastic script with confident energy and excess, brilliantly mirroring Bruce’s own sense of drug-induced unrest. Even if some of Baird’s stylistic quirks can be a little smothering, he clearly has fun exploring Bruce’s delusions, creating some enjoyably surreal sequences that range from the aforementioned therapy sessions to the overly glamorous, fourth wall-breaking monologues of Bruce’s wife. The rest of the off-screen team certainly do a similarly sterling job to uphold the film’s sinister, hallucinogenic feel, particularly Mark Eckersley whose smart editing is always on point. However it’s James McAvoy’s erratic performance which anchors the film by providing the essential human element.
Those used to seeing McAvoy playing respectable leading men like the young Charles Xavier in X-Men: First Class may be surprised by just how well he disappears into this role. A lesser actor would have been content to put on a suitably menacing performance and call it a day – and there’s no doubt that McAvoy does menacing extremely well – but I also found myself pitying him like one might pity a cornered rat. On top of this, McAvoy is accompanied by a terrific assortment of supporting players, most notably Eddie Marsan as Bladesey, the insecure, neurotic focus of much of Bruce’s wrath, and Shirley Henderson as Bladesey’s wife Bunty, whom Bruce frequently harasses with obscene phone calls.
In Irvine Welsh’s novel, there are sections of the text which are narrated by a tapeworm in Bruce’s intestines. For better or worse, this device doesn’t make it into Baird’s film adaptation, but I bring it up because I consider it to be as good an encapsulation as any of the film’s pervading sense of ickiness which is sure to put off many cinemagoers – and perhaps even some fans of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Yet as sleazy as Filth may be, it simply has too much humanity to be dismissed as a work of shock cinema. It takes a lot of empathy to create a film with this much compassion for someone so malicious. You may laugh at many of Bruce’s cocaine-fuelled exploits, but you rarely forget the bloody, beating heart which that same cocaine is quietly pushing to its limit.