Filth (2013)

★★★

Flith PosterDirector: Jon S. Baird

Release Date: October 4th, 2013 (UK); May 30th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Crime; Drama

Starring: James McAvoy

Filth might apply to the tumultuous antics of Jon S. Baird’s lead character, or it may simply be an indicator of Detective Bruce Robertson’s often questionable appearance. (And, likely, prevailing stench). Though, perhaps Filth’s title is a deeper reflection of one man and his increasingly deteriorating mental state; his conscious but not conscientious plummet down into the murky swallows of inhumanity.

James McAvoy is the star of the show, his portrayal of Bruce both admirable and disgusting in equal measure. But just as the (sort of) law man frequently gets sucked back and guzzled by the sewage of life during moments of potential rehabilitation, Baird’s film drowns in its own merits. Whereas individual factors are successful, the piece as a whole lacks continuity. It’s tough to hate a funny chap. It’s also tough to love a chap you hate.

Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is as corrupt as that virus ready to spring from the latest suspiciously titled email in your inbox. He is deceitful, devious and dishonest, but only he knows that. Which is a real plus, given Bruce has his eyes firmly glued to the new detective inspector position available. On the downside, the Scot’s relentless convolution of kindness has itself convoluted Bruce’s mental capacity. In other words, he could be on the verge of a massive breakdown.

Filth is one for those fond of the Trainspotting genre — heck, there is even a not so subtle nod towards said film. (When there is a toilet around, “Don’t fall in.”) It is based on another novel by Scottish author Irvine Welsh and retains the same out-to-offend sheen as was merrily paraded throughout Trainspotting; though one would imagine if you’re watching this you’re probably part of the target audience and therefore unlikely to be offended. Our lead character this time is a right git. Bruce’s morning cereal is a bowl of cocaine and vodka, and he’ll only sleep with someone if she’s the wife of a mate. His moral compass is infinitely spinning out of control. Most importantly, Bruce knows how to play the game. And we sort of morbidly appreciate him for that.

It helps that he is quite amusing. The first we see of Bruce is a baggy-eyed figure striding down an Edinburgh street, fingers pressed firmly in his ears as bagpipes sound. “There’s no place like home,” he retorts and from then we’re somewhat disagreeably cajoled under his unflattering spell. As the man wearing Bruce’s stinking clothes, you would inherently expect James McAvoy to play a huge part in that enticement and he absolutely does. He fits into Baird’s adopted world perfectly, lingo down to a tee. Moments shared with Jamie Bell veer close to hilarious with one particular spiel near the beginning particularly well executed, and the actor’s disparaging glances are especially sterling. McAvoy’s stock in Hollywood continues to rise and Filth is yet another effective vehicle shepherding his talents.

Almost as suddenly as they explode awkwardly on screen, the laughs are invariably substituted for a hodgepodge conglomeration of nonsensical dream sequences and scenes intended to be wrought with emotion. There is a wholly serious edge going on here, something more sinister, but these junctures of sincerity are undercut by the weirdness. Jim Broadbent shows up as an aloof psychiatrist armed with creepily elongated vowels and to the fanfare of A Clockwork Orange-esque melodies. His appearance is funny when it shouldn’t be as it represents Bruce’s mental implosion. Surface interactions with fellow officers and other sadistic actions are amusing because, at these precise points, we are only aware of Bruce as a dodgy fellow. As proceedings dissolve into his frail psychological state, laughter isn’t really applicable and subsequently the tone jars.

It is a shame too, because McAvoy makes these disturbing moments work to an extent. A scene between the actor and Imogen Poots is the most poignant, and best, of the film but there is a danger that some impact is lost due to this tonal inconsistency. It also becomes challenging to stick with Bruce. In one sense, his unrepentant demeanour when he knows his actions are driving him into the ground is quite tragic. But then we struggle to care because the guy is a dick. The character’s ambiguous moral standing feels more like an excuse than a justification. At one point he stares into a mirror and sees himself as a pig — Bruce knows he is a horrible person and the film should have played more on this rather than insisting on peculiarities.

The film is a conveyor belt of British screen savvy. Eddie Marsan gets the most time as part of a supporting cast accommodating the likes of Martin Compston, Shirley Henderson, Joanne Froggatt, Katie Dickie and Iain De Caestecker. Imogen Poots is criminally underused as one of Bruce’s promotion chasing enemies and, as Bunty, Shirley Henderson is essentially playing an X-rated Moaning Myrtle. It is a packed, if somewhat slightly ineffectively utilised, cast.

Bruce’s mantra is simple: “Because ah can’t fuckin’ help ma self.” In some ways director Jon S. Baird shares a similar sentiment, one that contributes as much to the film’s success as it does its downfall. Filth is funny, you’ll giggle often. However we’re also encouraged to chuckle at less appropriate moments and, despite the excellent efforts afforded by James McAvoy, this over-eagerness greatly hampers the piece.

Filth - McAvoy

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate