A film review by Craig J. Koban June 6, 2014 


2014, R, 97 mins.


James McAvoy as Bruce Robertson  /  Jamie Bell as Ray Lennox  /  Eddie Marsan as Bladesey  /  Imogen Poots as Amanda Drummond  /  Brian McCardie as Dougie Gillman  /  Emun Elliott as Peter Inglis  /  Joanne Froggatt as Mary  /  Jim Broadbent as Dr. Rossi  /  Kate Dickie as Chrissie  /  Shirley Henderson as Bunty  /  Martin Compston as Gorman  /  Iain De Caestecker as Ocky

Directed by Jon S. Baird  /  Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh

FILTH is such a perfectly succinct title, seeing as it’s an equally perfect embodiment of its main character.  

Edinburgh’s Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is…well...pure filth.  When he’s not habitually abusing drugs and alcohol he engages in sexually abusive flings with women (some as young as 15) and plots the utter occupational destruction of his colleagues as he tries to ascend to the promotion of Detective Inspector.  This is a deeply manipulative and hostilely arrogant man that will step on just about anyone to get what he wants.  The minor miracle of FILTH is that McAvoy – one of our most ferociously bold and confident of actors – makes this toxically misanthropic man that’s so easily detestable…somewhat endearing.  McAvoy has never been so stripped down and frankly ugly in a film role, but he’s undeniably dynamite throughout all of FILTH. 

Jon S. Baird’s film is based on the book of the same name by lauded Scottish playwright and novelist Irvine Welsh, who previously – and most famously – penned TRAINSPOTTING, which was, in turn, made into the critically acclaimed 1996 film that launched the careers of director Danny Boyle and star Ewan McGregor.  Welsh’s prose is characterized by its almost savagely frank and harsh depictions of the worst aspects of Edinburgh life, and FILTH is positively no exception.  The film is a macabre and frequently hilarious portrait of self-implosion and ever-escalating insanity as it chronicles the increasingly erratic and unhealthy appetites of its main character.  Robertson is a textbook deviant without any apparent hope of recuperation in sight, but beyond the film’s deeply nihilistic portrait of him lays an underlying foundation that past trauma has contributed to his current woes.  He’s not sympathetic, but he is relatable for how certain indiscretions in his life beyond his control have contributed to his break from reality. 



As stated, Robertson’s main mission in his damaged life is to get his long-sought-after promotion, which appears to be given a jump-start when he is assigned to look into a recent murder of a Japanese student.  Of course, there are other’s vying for the job in his department as well, some of which are not his intellectual equal (“When did a single-figure IQ ever hold back in the police force?” he matter-of-factly proclaims in his many voiceover narrations), but he nonetheless considers everyone that could sidetrack his goals as an enemy.  He will do anything – and I do mean anything – to royally screw over his colleagues if it means achieving his end game.  More or less, Robertson feigns friendship and congeniality with his enemies, but mercilessly sabotages them behind their backs.  Whether it be stealing balloons from a small child, soliciting oral sex from the very young daughter of a prominent lawyer, or even framing one of his buddies for a crime he himself committed, Robertson is simply all kinds of bad news. 

Alas, the more he descends into wanton unethical behavior – not to mention copious amounts of cocaine – the more he begins to suffer from crippling hallucinations that stalls his climb up the work ladder.  The film takes great ghoulish relish in exploring these hallucinations, especially when they take the form of dreamlike sequences where Robertson frequently speaks with his somewhat bonkers psychiatrist (the lively Jim Broadbent, so damn good in these high energy supporting roles) to try to deal with his psychotic breaks.  As more time passes, Robertson loses grip even more on his mission and reality in front of him, which all culminates in a series of third act revelations about both his past and present that I frankly didn’t see coming.  There just may be a tangible source for Robertson’s pain and misery, but the film slyly never alludes to it with too much obviousness. 

Comparisons to TRAINSPOTTING are going to surface with any discussion of FILTH.  I would aptly argue that any similarities might be superficial at best.  FILTH lacks the hard edged, in-your-face aesthetic exuberance of Boyle’s film (granted, Baird’s style is not restrained or leisurely here either), but it still gets ape-ship-bonkers in terms of portraying Robertson’s disassociation from those around him.  As he becomes madder he begins to see his friends and colleagues as hideous animal headed freaks, which only helps sell the film’s non-stop menagerie of grotesqueness.  FILTH also tiptoes between two very difficult tones: all-out farce/black comedy and a sobering portrait of the tragedy of lunacy and mental illness.  It’s quite amazing that Baird manages to keep some semblance of order in this chaotic film.  Somehow, FILTH holds together and does not quickly implode on itself. 

However, I’m not sure how this film would have held together without McAvoy’s titanic performance here.  It’s no easy fact to make a social monster an identifiable protagonist in a film, but the genius of McAvoy’s turn here is that he not only wholeheartedly embraces Robertson’s vile and nauseating behavior, but also keenly observes and relates a man that’s sick and beyond salvation, which ultimately makes him more well rounded as an inquisitive character outside of his hooligan-like antics.  His character is also called upon – many times in the film – to break the fourth wall and speak to the audience, and a performance that would have winked to us with too much self-awareness would have capsized this whole endeavor.  Yet, McAvoy manages to segue between carnival-like overacting and grounded sincerity that’s kind of an audacious marvel to behold.  He's supported by a fine assembly of actors as well, like Jamie Bell and Gary Lewis, who play a couple of Robertson’s work colleagues.  In particular, I really admired Eddie Marsan’s hysterical turn as Clifford, an inept bookwormy dweeb of a man that Robertson takes an unhealthy delight in manipulating and humiliating at every turn.  In all of the film’s aberrant extremes, Marsan’s character and sly performance gives it a compassionate epicenter of curiosity.  Equally inspired is Shirley Henderson as Clifford’s squeaky voiced, but conniving wife that is engaging in an extramarital affair with Robertson.    

That being said, FILTH is a difficult film to sit through; it’s not pleasing or entertaining by the literal definitions of the words, seeing as we have to trek down the ugly rabbit hole of a sociopath for 90-plus minutes (not everyone’s idea of a good time).  Baird also paints the films with some head-shakingly bizarre flourishes (like, for example, a closing credits montage, done with animated animals over a rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep”), which I found distractingly incongruent.   However, I still admired the film’s complete lack of restraint; it goes for broke and never holds anything back, which is precisely the right path for any black comedy of ill social manners to adhere to.  And, let me tell you, McAvoy holds nothing back here, folks.  As a force of sinful nature here, he’s a manically intoxicating to behold here in all of his rage. 

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