Director: Jon S. Baird
Runtime: 97 minutes
Above all else, Filth is a testament to the range of Scottish actor James McAvoy. He first came to prominence as a sweet little faun in the first Narnia film, and has since played doomed lovers (Atonement) and superheroes (X-Men) with equal skill. Yet none of the actor's previous work will prepare you for what he pulls off in Jon S. Baird's adaptation of Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh's novel about police corruption. While it's (hopefully) far too early to call McAvoy's work the performance of his lifetime, it sure as hell sets the bar quite high. There is, sadly, a tradeoff. In order to see James McAvoy be so brilliant in Filth, you have to actually watch Filth the movie.
Great performances surrounded by lackluster films are nothing new, to be sure. Just a few years ago, Javier Bardem delivered stunning work in Biutiful, which was otherwise a sluggish, empty drama. Yet maybe the boredom that came with Biutiful wasn't so bad after all. Filth likely won't leave you bored, but that's because it's trying so hard to be edgy and outrageous, when it's mostly just cruel and vile, even though it's not noticeably more graphic than similar films.
Though not nearly as big in scope, Filth is something like a Scottish answer to last year's The Wolf of Wall Street. This time, however, the corrupt figure at the center is a policeman, rather than an investment banker. That policeman is Bruce Robertson (McAvoy, complete with oily hair and scuzzy ginger beard), who is desperate for a promotion. Said promotion, according to an oddly theatrical intro scene featuring his wife Carole (Shauna Macdonald), will help put the spark back in their marriage. The couple aren't exactly struggling, but they're in the midst of a ritualistic sex game of sorts, with Bruce's work life currently functioning as the playground. All Bruce has to do undermine his co-workers, at any cost, in order to make himself the clear choice for the job.
Yet just as Bruce's boss spends more time thinking about movies than policework, you'll soon find part of your mind wandering elsewhere. Filth has a little bit of naughty fun with Bruce's inner monologue at the outset (particularly his views on the Scottish people), but it runs out of fun or interesting things to say not much later. This is the sort of cinematic provocation that walks a fine line between vivaciously portraying wicked behavior and actively condoning said behavior. Sophomore director Jon S. Baird generally avoids falling into the trap of supporting Robertson's commentary, which includes homophobia, misogyny, and buckets of crassness.
Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that Filth gets away with having its dirty little cake and eating too. The plotting weaves murkily between exploring Bruce's vices and his undermining of his coworkers, without much of an arc really emerging. The career stuff really gets the short end of the stick, and what could play out as a set of wicked games is left to laziness (ex: Bruce writes homophobic graffiti in the office, assigns blame to someone else, looks noble...the end).
The work subplot is ultimately just more fodder for the film to show Bruce's depravity. In fairness, Baird gets that across well enough, especially when he visualizes the inside of the character's head. But, despite a running time only half of The Wolf of Wall Street, Filth starts to flounder as it heads down the tar-black rabbit hole. The brunt of the film's psychology is withheld for the sporadically nightmarish final act, which feels lazy, rather than shocking. The ugly, blue-hued visuals certainly don't add anything to whatever atmosphere Baird and Co. were aiming for.
Literally the only worthwhile part of the enterprise is McAvoy, who is placed front and center throughout all of the muck and grime. Though the material is often frustrating, McAvoy takes the scant initial details and absolutely goes to town with it. Others would have drowned in the ugly quagmire at the film's core, but McAvoy smashes through it, making every naughty grin and sadistic freak out feel effortless. He'd send the rosy-cheeked heroes of Narnia (and maybe even a few of the monsters) fleeing for their bedrooms. Meanwhile, the rest of the talented supporting cast are left with little more to do than act oblivious, or fall prey to Bruce's spell.
Though the final act does introduce some compelling psychology to the bad-boy mayhem, it feels desperate, rather than earned. In the hands of someone like Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), a story like Filth could have been a brilliant, warped, and ultimatelty devastating look at mental illness and unchecked immorality. Instead, the mental illness piece of the puzzle is wielded as a blunt instrument in a last ditch effort to make Filth "about" something, even as it provides the viewer one last faux-edgy kick in the final frames. Inside Bruce Robertson's head is a fascinating, albeit disturbing, character and story waiting to be unlocked. Filth, unfortunately, is little more than Mr. Baird and Co. going through the motions as they intermittently fumble with the keys. A performance as good as the one McAvoy turns in here deserves a far better vehicle.