Based on a novel by Irvine Welsh, Jon S. Baird’s Filth is delightfully anarchic, forthright in its crassness, and, despite a general lack of thrust, exhilarating to watch.
Antiheroes seem to be a theme in this week’s releases. Dinsey tried to repurpose one of their famous villainesses into a hero of sorts, and, over here in the arthouses, director Jon S. Baird has made a film about a violent, suicidal, immoral, addicted, lecherous, Mephistophelean corrupt cop, and managed to make him into something at least kind of relatable. Think of a more psychedelic version of Bad Lieutenant – one that nearly borders on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – and you’ll be in the right cognitive space.
Filth is a rich, cheeky, dirty flick. It’s one of those rare films that presents you with a totally bankrupt character, and makes you want him to succeed in his illegal endeavors, not unlike Alex De Large in A Clockwork Orange. He has a respectable ambition in his life, even if that ambition is to lie, seduce, and snort his way across the country. Bruce, as played by James McAvoy, is whip smart, observant, and seeks a promotion within his police precinct, He knows his rivals’ weaknesses, and knows how to exploit them. We respect his clear-eyed ambition. He is a Machiavellian bastard of the highest order, and we just love his anti-cuddliness.
Director Baird knows how to give this character the appropriate visual flourish. If one were to keep the visuals founded in the real-life concrete jungles of the city, then Filth would be merely depressing. Baird, no doubt taking his cues from Irvine Welsh’s original novel, introduces extended hallucination sequences (Jim Broadbent plays a bug-eyed medical doctor who exists in a disturbing netherrealm), spirited narration, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and even a musical number or two, just to keep things lively. Oh yes, and a scene where men Xerox their own genitals.
Bruce wishes to win back the heart of his estranged wife (Shauna McDonald), who only ever appears in disconnected vignettes, dolled up to Lynchian perfection with deep red lips and pale white skin, giving monologues about how manly her husband is, and how a promotion will arouse her sexually. She never interacts with Bruce, however, and we begin to wonder if this really in Bruce’s wife. Her steely sexuality is mirrored by the earthier Shirley Henderson, the wife of a co-worker (the excellent Eddie Marsan) who bears the brunt of an obscene phone caller. Yes, it turns out that the obscene phone caller is Bruce himself, and he uses his position in the police to encourage her to “react positively” to the obscene calls. After a while, we begin to see Bruce’s sexuality as a fitfully active thing.
And through it all, Bruce’s depression begins to leak through. There are some grand reveals as to Bruce’s true motivations for his behavior, but he is luckily never excused for his evilness.
Ultimately, Filth runs a bit long, it seems unfocussed for long stretches, and it definitely begins to drag near the end (how many times can we see someone’s head explode into that of a farm animal?). But until then, the hallucinatory energy and gleeful rule-breaking is exciting and, dare I say, kind of fun. And be sure to stick around through the credits. The animated closing is, well, wonderfully gross.