In almost every respect, Filth is a film that shouldn’t work at all. An adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s complicated, difficult novel laced with shades of psychosis and depravity? In the hands of a director who has only one other film under his belt? Featuring a central character who’s more monster than man, not so much demanding sympathy as being almost completely undeserving of it? Starring James McAvoy, a charming, nice- guy bloke of an actor who made his big-screen debut as a faun? No, it really shouldn’t work – and yet, it does, remarkably well.
Bruce Robertson (McAvoy) is a wretched beast of a man who lies, cheats, manipulates and fornicates his way through life. To snag a promotion to Detective Inspector in the Edinburgh police department, Bruce ruthlessly plays his colleagues off one another. But it soon becomes clear that his latest case – the gang murder of a Japanese student – is not the only thing unravelling around him. Bruce’s wife and child have left him, and it seems likely that his wits will soon follow suit.
By rights, there’s nothing particularly funny about Bruce’s predicament. Filth could easily have been presented as a bleak, cautionary drama about mental illness and sociopathy, asking questions about when a personality defect tips over into madness. It would be far more difficult to give full play to the blackest of black humour that suffuses Welsh’s novel.
And yet, writer-director Jon S. Baird’s decision to do just that is precisely why Filth works as well as it does. It’s not an easy or comfortable watch, and could prove utterly repulsive to some. But there’s something magnetically enchanting about the film as it zips by. In effect, it’s a live-action cartoon on steroids, chasing after Bruce as he bounces from reality into his drug-addled imagination and back again. Miraculously, Baird ensures that Filth never veers into the realm of camp. Instead, the entire experience is a perverse mix of charm and horror: you’ll find yourself almost ashamed to take delight in a film and character so unapologetically depraved.
The sheer electric power of McAvoy’s performance cannot be over-stated. Everything in the film sets Bruce up as that rare villain who becomes a leading man: he preys mercilessly on those more innocent than himself (including Jamie Bell’s awkward young detective and Eddie Marsan as Bruce’s hapless, self-termed best friend), and disdains those more competent or trying to help him (his main rival as played by Imogen Poots). McAvoy commits utterly fearlessly to Bruce’s villainy. It’s a revelation to see an actor known for his genial, everyman demeanour descend into such dark and sordid places.
But the true magic of McAvoy’s performance comes in the quieter moments, the handful of shuddering silences that pepper Bruce’s outbursts of action and manipulation. Therein, McAvoy unearths a fast-fading glimmer of humanity – not in any way enough to redeem Bruce, but essential to forming a more complete, tragic picture of the man who has lost himself beneath layers of monster and menace.
As a film, Filth asks a lot of its audience: trust in the crazy twists in its story, forbearance for its more morally repugnant characters and moments, faith in its ability to tie all the loose ends up in a way that doesn’t cheapen itself. Not everyone will think Baird has succeeded. Those who haven’t walked out by the end might be upset by the cheeky audacity of its final scene. But those who give themselves over to the streak of insanity – both literal and metaphorical – laced throughout Filth will be rewarded with one of the smartest, darkest and most intellectually beguiling films of the year.
9 out of 10 stars