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‘Filth’ gets you dirty but leaves you empty inside

‘Filth’ gets you dirty but leaves you empty inside

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Written for the screen and directed by Jon S. Baird
UK, 2013

Though infused with an infectious anarchic energy, Filth confuses rudeness with rebellion. Even the gleeful excesses can’t save the film’s muddled script as it loses its narrative steam and plummets into melodrama. The wickedness feels less like provocation and more like a diversion to hide the wafer-thin story. In other words, Filth is all talk and no shock.

Adapted from the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name, Filth plunges us into a poisonous world of sex, drugs and the rottenly droll. Desperate characters lurk around every corner, some fueled by fear and others by addiction. An intoxicating mix of nihilism and ambition makes everyone corruptible in Welsh’s Edinburgh, especially the police. And if anyone is drunk on nihilism and ambition, surely it’s Detective Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy).

It seems that Bruce is bucking for a promotion to Detective Inspector and he’s willing to do anything and destroy anyone to get it. That includes his younger colleague and coke-sniffing buddy, Ray (Jamie Bell), and the uber-serious new girl on the block, Amanda (Imogen Poots). Fate offers Bruce a twisted glimmer of hope, however, when he’s assigned a high-profile murder case, the solving of which would guarantee his promotion. That would make his wife, Carole (Shauna Macdonald), extremely happy, as the mere mention of power makes her breathless with raunchy delight.

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To say that Bruce is despicable would be a massive understatement. He’s scum. He’s also depressed, hallucinating, tormented by childhood memories, and snorting enough cocaine to sink a battleship. McAvoy throws himself into the role with no regard for his mortal soul. There is no holding back in his performance, and each line of acidic dialogue is delivered with so much venom you can almost feel the flecks of spit hitting you in the face. He doesn’t walk so much as he uncoils; a live wire that is crackling and deadly to the touch. With this performance, McAvoy announces himself as a talented actor willing to tackle any role.

Written and directed by Jon Baird, Filth doesn’t bother with the finer points. It’s all about the broad strokes (and punches and roundhouse uppercuts). There is no sense of escalation, just a series of foul vignettes that push Bruce further into his own private hell. None of the scenes feel connected to one another, which squanders any dramatic tension or possibility for dark humor. Nothing builds, there is no release — we simply ride along with Bruce on his journey into the abyss.

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Baird’s ambitious directorial style is laudable.  He tells his story in close-ups that lend each scene an almost confessional feel. You can see the distended veins and throbbing arteries, smell the desperation in every bead of sweat. And yet, Baird’s script undercuts this personal connection by skimping on character development. The problem is structural: because he’s trying to preserve a big surprise for the final act, Baird can’t divulge too much information about Bruce’s childhood or personal life. There is no depth, no context, no reason to care. Bruce is simply a jerk, as we see over and over and over again. Worse still, when we finally reach the surprise ending it’s completely underwhelming. It functions merely as one last opportunity to humiliate Bruce and a desperate attempt to add shock value.

By the time a few details about Bruce’s past (and present) finally start to emerge, we simply don’t care anymore. McAvoy does his best to deliver the quiet dramatic moments, but drama without context is nothing more than trite melodrama. Instead of delving into what makes Bruce such a monster, Baird focuses on the monstrosity, thereby eliminating any human connection we might have with him. It also renders any realizations or progress Bruce might have made completely irrelevant; again, no context equals melodrama. Needless to say, after enduring 90 minutes of ugliness and debasement, melodrama isn’t very satisfying.

There are a lot of quality components to Filth. The cast is uniformly strong, with McAvoy giving the best performance of his young career. Baird has a strong visual sense, and he stylishly conveys the hallucinogenic nightmare of his protagonist. This is an uncompromising film and the bravery of the filmmakers should be commended. However, the story is simply too disjointed and shallow to engage us on a meaningful level. It tries to slather on the vulgarity and melodrama to keep us entertained, but when the movie ends you’re left with nothing but a hollow, unsatisfied feeling. That’s a little too close for comfort to Bruce’s world.

— J.R. Kinnard