Filth Review

Posted: December 5, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

8a9c8ac001d3ef9e4ce39b1177295e03_500x735Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

In the mid-90s, author Irvine Welsh become something of a name in the film community thanks to Danny Boyle’s adaptation of his novel, Trainspotting. The film had an energy, memorable characters, funny scenes, and unique dialogue. The film was a hit and to this day is still held in high regard. While Boyle has gone on to found major success with a number of different films, subsequent Welsh adaptations have all basically been considered failures. If one film looked to change that, it was the most recent adaptation, simply titled Filth. With an exciting trailer that had lots of energy and James McAvoy really cutting loose, this looked like it could be something strong. However only played in the U.K. before being dumped in just a few theaters in North America. Now that I’ve seen the film I can tell why; Filth is pretty lousy.

Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is a detective in Edinburgh defined by his abuses of drugs, alcohol, and sex, as well as for being a generally unpleasant and unproductive person. He is placed on the case of a murdered Japanese student, but finds himself far more interested in manipulating his various colleagues so that he will be the ideal candidate for a coming promotion. However his self-destructive lifestyle begins to catch up with him as the film explores how Bruce begins to breakdown over the next few days.

From the get-go, it’s apparent that director Jon S. Baird is not interested in following any sort of plot. Though there are some details of the murder given in an early scene, they aren’t really the focus, and the film seems to forget about it all together until the climax. Filth is instead meant to be a character study of Bruce Robertson, the foul-mouthed, volatile, substance abusing, and scheming detective. The problem is that Bruce is written in such cartoonish extremes that, as a character study, Filth fails completely. Bruce is so obviously a vile and deranged person that there’s no way someone like this would be able to achieve any sort of success without being discovered. Harvey Keitel played a similarly unbalanced officer in Bad Lieutenant, but at least that character was able to mask his less-savoury aspects so that one could believe he could succeed as a cop. Bruce does not have this nuance. One could argue this is a deliberate choice to show the incompetence of Scotland’s police force, but the film gives no indication of that. More than anything it just feels like bad writing. The film tries to balance the character out with some sympathetic moments, but these just feel completely jarring. Bruce is a completely despicable person and for the film to try and elicit sympathy for him is totally misguided. To his credit, James McAvoy does all he can with the role. He really commits, and he sells the more emotional scenes better than they should be. Still, this character is too inherently flawed to really get behind.

The film’s inconsistency spreads far beyond the main character. The entire film is really just a big tonal mess. Filth aspires to be dark crime-comedy in the vein of…Trainspotting. It might not be fair to directly compare this to Welsh’s most famous work, but the film is clearly trying play in the sandbox so it does invite such comparisons. Anyway, the central problem is that this film does not have a very firm grasp on balancing comedy with the darker aspects. For example, within the first ten minutes Bruce forces an underage teen to give him a blow-job in a scene that plays for comedy. Needless to say, it isn’t funny at all and instead comes off as disturbing. There is a very fine art to dark comedy, and simply framing bad things in a humorous light is not enough. Most of the other comedic attempts from really obvious jokes like a nerdy character getting high and dancing funny. I don’t find these broad attempts very funny, and after that the film relies on Bruce’s obscenity to get laughs. As you can imagine, that grows tiring quickly. To make matters worse, the film occasionally tries to shift to more poignant moments or plot driven ones, which are totally half-baked and forced.

Ultimately, a big part of the problem is that Jon S. Baird isn’t really talented enough to pull this off. He clearly wants Filth to be a stylish film, but he lacks the tricks to really pull it off. Most of the time Baird just relies on quick cutting and extreme scenarios, which feels more like a desperate plea for attention than anything. Still, the man manages to do some good. The rapid cutting does help give the film a sense of energy, as does the noticeable soundtrack. Indeed, for all my problems with Filth, I was never bored. Even so, the few stylistic flourishes Baird adds are in support of a very empty film, and they themselves are not nuanced enough to truly elevate the work. It’s a case of style over substance, and the style isn’t even well realized.

Perhaps it’s silly for me to be disappointed in Filth given the many warning signs I had. The film’s lack of a real theatrical release date, the weak reviews, and the general history of underwhelming Irvine Welsh adaptations should have tipped me off. Overall, Filth is a mess that doesn’t really succeed at anything it wants to be. Credit is due to James McAvoy for giving a good performance in spite of what he had to work with and there are a few moments that work, but I still think this is a pretty bad film. You’re better off just rewatching Trainspotting.

D

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