Review: Filth (2013)

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Director: Jon S. Baird
Screenwriter: Jon S. Baird
Based on the novel of the same by Irvine Welsh
Cast: James McAvoy, Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Broadbent, Emun Elliot & Shirley Henderson
Runtime: 97 min // Certificate: 18

You can tell a lot about a film from its title…

Filth, Jon S. Baird’s deliciously debauched adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s hit novel of the same name, does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a nasty, ugly little film that is so flagrant in its refusal to rein itself in that those of a nervous disposition might want to look elsewhere for their cinematic pleasures. If, however, you’re the type of person who finds artistic value in the distasteful, the degenerate and the depraved, Filth might well be the film for you. It combines genuine gross-out comedy (as opposed to the feeble “gross-out” nature of films like American Pie) with crushingly harsh tragedy in a manner that only an Irvine Welsh adaptation truly can, the effect of which is to leave the audience a broken husk on the floor… much like the central character. It is, as the title suggests, a filthy film that will leave you craving an all over body scrub by the end, yet it is also a film that is, for better or for worse, shrouded in excessive realism.

Now, the term “dark comedy” is thrown around a lot these days. The dark-comic genre has become so bloated with tame, uncontroversial output that it seems to have lost all meaning. Filth, however, fits the classic “dark comedy” mould quite perfectly. It tells the tale of Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (McAvoy) – a corrupt, lawless hedonist – as he embarks on a quest to attain promotion to Detective Inspector. Robertson is a vile bully; a racist, sexist, homophobic pig for whom the law is but a barrier to his devious purposes in life. His wife has left him, so he’s free to engage in whatever repulsive activities he so pleases, although his ultimate aim is to win promotion in order to get her back. Alas, in order to get the promotion, he must first engage in the systematic destruction of the character and reputation of his colleagues, all of whom also want the job.

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Filth is, like the novel, the type of film that puts its cards on the table from the word go. The entire affair hangs on the character of Bruce and, no matter how repugnant we may find him, we are forced to spend the film’s entire runtime in his company. We watch in horror as he belittles his friends, breaks the law, abuses women and children, goes off the rails, veers over the cliff face and descends into total carnal abandonment, yet the film holds our attention because we know that beneath the façade of this hateful man lies a character with whom we can all relate on some level. He’s broken, he feels isolated from the rest of society and he’s cripplingly lonely. He pops pills (for medicinal, recreational and habitual reasons), drinks like a fish, makes lewd phone calls to his colleague’s wife and treats everyone he knows like shit because… well, because he can. He’s a man who has long given up any desire to live and so he careers, from one breakdown to the next, through a life that offers not a single scrap of respite until it hits its pitiful, unceremonious end.

The issue here is this; if you are unable to invest in Bruce’s character then you’ll more than likely hate Filth. You don’t have to like him (why would you? He’s despicable) but you do have to at least try to understand him in some way. He’s presented as bipolar, though it seems to me that there’s much more to him than that. He’s not just immoral, he’s amoral. Yet to argue that he’s driven purely by instinct and the pursuit of avaricious pleasure is to miss the point of him. He’s a fractured man who, it seems, doesn’t know what he is or wants. A number of hints are dropped which suggest that all he really wants is someone to love; a simple desire that circumstance has cruelly denied him. Whatever the case, despite his arrogance, his perversion and his vicious streak, he’s a very complicated and multi-faceted man.

The film therefore rests on McAvoy’s ability to portray the numerous aspects of Bruce’s personality and turn him from a caricature into a relatable and terrifyingly human character. This he does valiantly. I’m not convinced that it’s McAvoy’s best performance but his turn as Bruce is certainly his most raw and gritty. Bruce encapsulates a seedy and unspoken strand of society that has fallen off the moral radar completely; they’re not just hedonistic in the traditional sense, they’re also lawless and depraved. They seek pleasure at all costs because their lives are so barren and McAvoy, with a performance that combines melodramatic tragedy with searing comedy and commentary, captures every intricacy in his portrayal of this type of person.

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Filth isn’t an easy watch. I dispute the idea that it’s like “social porn”, and I actually think Baird’s approach is anything but unfettered; indeed, at times, he seems to refrain from the truly gruesome stuff and reins himself in. What it is, however, is raw. It’s a gritty, grimy film that is filmed in such a way that just to look at it makes you feel a little bit seedy. McAvoy is styled in such a way that he looks like a creep, the film feels naturalistic and the humour comes loaded with social commentary. The film is very “Scottish” in that it makes light of serious issues but never belittles or demeans them. The alcoholism, the drug addiction, the insular take on social issues etc. are all very much clichés about Scotland and the film has quite a bit of fun with them before delving into the nitty-gritty.

However, there is also a streak of surrealism into which the film occasionally dips its toes. Jim Broadbent stars as a cruel, nightmarish Doctor who supplies Bruce with his medication. As Bruce goes further and further off the rails, Broadbent’s Doctor begins to appear to him in visions, mocking him about his wife and supplying him with larger and larger doses (quite literally; the pills get bigger until they’re practically towering over him). It acts as a respite from the constant realism of the drama and it works surprisingly well. It offers a starkly exaggerated insight into just how unhinged Bruce actually is and allows Baird to have some fun with Welsh’s dark material.

Filth is great. It’s a shame that the supporting characters are seen as surplus to requirements – much like Bruce sees them – as it does turn into a bit of a one-man show. Nevertheless, McAvoy is such an intense presence that this isn’t too much of a problem. I don’t think the film is quite as nasty as it thinks it is (I’ve seen nastier, put it that way…) and though the revelation in the final act is well-handled, I found something about it a bit jarring, almost as though Baird was mocking Bruce. These, however, are minor issues. If you can handle a dirty, nasty film about a man on the verge of a complete mental break then you should definitely give Filth a go. It’s not quite as sophisticated as Trainspotting (where there was a bizarre subtlety to that film, Filth is very much in your face) but it’s still very entertaining, albeit in a sick and twisted way.