bad cops, bad decisions, Bad Lieutenant, based on a book, black comedies, Brian McCardie, British films, cinema, Clint Mansell, corrupt law enforcement, Eddie Marsan, electronic score, Emun Elliott, film reviews, films, Filth, gallows' humor, Gary Lewis, homophobia, Imogen Poots, infidelity, insanity, Irvine Welsh, James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, John Sessions, Jon S. Baird, Matthew Jensen, mental illness, Movies, pigs, racism, sexism, Shauna Macdonald, Shirley Henderson, Trainspotting, voice-over narration, writer-director
When it comes to filmed adaptations of Scottish scalawag Irvine Welsh’s novels, Danny Boyle’s extraordinary version of Trainspotting (1996) will probably always be the gold standard. In a way, Boyle’s film was a perfect storm and, perhaps, the only one of the adaptations to truly capture Welsh’s unique voice and style. Boyle managed to find the essential humanity at the core of some pretty reprehensible characters and wrapped the proceedings in an alternately candy-colored and bleakly hallucinatory environment: the film was the perfect combination of the romantic and the scatological, the joy and shuddering horror of the trod-upon Scotch lower-class writ large for the whole world to see. In Boyle’s hands, there was equal parts poetry and filth, the proverbial rose pushing up through a mountain of shit. Trainspotting works so well because Boyle walks the tightrope so perfectly: too much glitz and we lose the allure of Welsh’s gutter-punk angels…too much vulgarity and we tune out the misery, if only to avoid staring too deeply into the abyss.
Although it’s not (necessarily) meant as a pejorative, writer/director Jon S. Baird’s adaptation of Welsh’s Filth (2013) is no Trainspotting. In certain ways, the film plays more like an over-the-top (waaaaay over the top) take on Abel Ferrara’s classic of feel-bad-cinema, Bad Lieutenant (1999), just as content to shove our noses in bad behavior as it is to comment on it. Where Ferrara’s film wore its intentions on its sleeve, (any film that centers around a nun forgiving her rapist is obviously interested in more than just a visceral reaction), Filth is a little cagier about its ultimate goal. When Baird’s film works, it’s ferocious, funny, eye-popping and endlessly offensive, featuring a truly great ending and a career-best performance by James McAvoy. When the film doesn’t work, however, it’s actually rather dreadful: pretentious, empty-headed and more stylish than substantial, Filth manages to make all of the mistakes that Trainspotting didn’t. While I (ultimately) ended up liking the film quite a bit (no doubt due, in no small part, to that phenomenal ending), there was plenty that I found to be equally eye-rolling, obnoxious and tedious. Filth may not ascend to the heady heights that Trainspotting did but there’s plenty to enjoy here: fans of Welsh’s purple prose may, indeed, celebrate the fact that Baird has captured the author’s often difficult voice so well.
Our “hero” and guide through this little section of Hell is none other than Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy), a cop so completely and thoroughly corrupt/reprehensible that he makes Harvey Keitel’s titular “bad lieutenant” look like a real sweetheart. Bruce is virulently sexist, racist and homophobic, hoovers up cocaine by the metric ton and eagerly blackmails the underage daughter of a prominent lawyer into performing oral sex on him. He steals money from his “best friend” while anonymously serving as obscene phone-caller to the poor guy’s wife, while also sleeping with the wife of one of his co-workers. Bruce is angling for a department promotion which, in his fetid little world, involves doing everything he can to sabotage his fellow officers’ chances of vaulting over him to the finish line.
We first meet Bruce’s co-workers via a series of fantasy vignettes in which our resident Mr. Wonderful gives his (slanted) take on his peers: Dougie (Brian McCardie) is the “Nazi” who’s being cuckolded by Bruce; Peter (Emun Elliott) is the “metrosexual” and “closeted gay”; Ray (Jamie Bell) is the “coke-head rookie”; Gus (Gary Lewis) is the “old as dirt, single-IQ” department veteran and Amanda (Imogen Poots) is the “token female” who “must be sucking off the whole squad,” at least according to Bruce’s jaundiced worldview.
While Bruce’s work-life appears to be one never-ending scheme after another, his home-life appears to be just as complicated and unpleasant. We meet his lovely blonde wife, Carole (Shauna Macdonald), through a series of largely unsuccessful vignettes/voice-overs and get some hint of a past trauma after Bruce attempts (and fails) to give CPR to someone who has collapsed on the street. The dead man’s widow, Mary (Joanne Froggatt), periodically appears to serve as Bruce’s conscience, in a way, while also giving hints at the kind of love story that belongs in a much nicer film.
To muddy the waters even further, Bruce’s squad is currently embroiled in the controversial case of a Japanese exchange student who has been brutally beat to death by a gang of Scottish punks. As the team investigates the case, the stakes are raised when it’s revealed that closing the case will virtually guarantee one of them a plum new promotion: Bruce wants that promotion and sets out to stop his fellow officers in any way he can. Bruce has such single-minded devotion to his plan, in fact, that the actual murder case fades into the background, even when it appears that Carole may be the only witness to the incident.
As Bruce dives deeper and deeper into the sewage around him, his tenuous grasp on reality begins to flicker in and out: he starts to imagine people (including himself) with animal heads, loses control of his hair-trigger temper at a moment’s notice and descends even further into an unrelenting drug hell. Will Bruce be able to keep it all together long enough to solve the murder or, at the very least, completely wreck his co-workers’ lives? What mysterious incident happened to Bruce that causes him to constantly reminisce about a dead boy? And what, exactly, is going on with Bruce’s absent wife, Carole? The ultimate revelation is quite a surprise and leads to a truly bravura climax that almost (but not quite) rivals the “Choose life” finale from Trainspotting, albeit from a much grimmer angle.
As mentioned above, Filth is a pretty hit-and-miss affair but the hits are heady enough to gloss over the misses. Chief among the “pros” here is McAvoy’s astounding performance as Bruce: as painful as a raw nerve, as dastardly as any villain and just charming enough to prevent you from wanting to squash him like a bug, Bruce is a massively interesting construct and is brought to glorious life by McAvoy. Without a strong center, the film would, literally, collapse into wet newspaper: who the hell wants to get stuck with an unlovable, lecherous sociopath for 90 minutes? To McAvoy’s immense credit, he manages to humanize Bruce just enough (the guy is still an inhuman creep, mind you) to allow the finale to have genuine impact. There’s a truly odd but relentlessly effective scene where Bruce obscene calls his friend’s wife while watching old home movies: as tears stream down his cheeks and his eyes betray pure misery, Bruce mouths some of the most vile “sex talk” in some time and masturbates in almost robotic fashion. The split screen shows us that Bunty (Shirley Henderson) is also furiously pleasuring herself, which makes a ludicrous parallel to Bruce’s miserable actions. It’s a small but effective moment, a bit that fuses the film’s twin obsessions of gutter-trawling and emotional overload into one dynamic whole.
Although McAvoy is, head and shoulders, the focal point of the film, it’s definitely not a one-man show. The ensemble is a particularly strong one, with all of Bruce’s co-workers receiving their own moment in the sun, along with some despicable behaviors of their own. Particularly impressive, however, is veteran British character-actor Eddie Marsan as Bruce’s put-upon “best friend” and Masonic Lodge brother Clifford. With his doughy features and perpetually hang-dog demeanor, Clifford is a fabulous foil for Bruce: the scene where Bruce takes Clifford out for a night on the town flops wildly between a “night out for the lads” and “complete psychological torture.” Clifford is an intriguing character and Marsan goes for the gusto in the role, expanding what could have been a caricature into a fully fleshed, if largely worthless, individual.
From a craft standpoint, Filth looks great, although it’s occasionally a little blown-out for my tastes. The film also has the benefit of a pretty excellent soundtrack courtesy of former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell: while the score doesn’t rival the iconic soundtrack from Trainspotting, it’s still an effective combination of Mansell’s traditional electro scorework and some pretty apt pop tunes (Mansell’s evocative cover of Radiohead’s Creep scores the final scene and is absolutely perfect for the mood Baird has established.
While the film has plenty to recommend it, however, there’s also plenty that nearly derails it completely. The interludes with Carole never work and always seem ancillary to the main narrative. They’re also quite irritating, to be honest, and tonally out-of-sorts with the rest of the film. Along those lines, several scenes, such as the impromptu musical number, seem out-of-place and manage to fall completely flat, affording nothing more than a shrug. For a film that’s about lurid and anti-social behavior, Filth also has a strange tendency to seem…well, just a little bit tame, if that makes sense. Whereas Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant was a feral, unhinged fever dream, Filth plays out more as a snide, tongue-in-cheek expose on “bad behavior”: it’s a little like crossing the street to avoid an exceptionally creepy looking stranger only to discover that the stranger is actually Robert Pattinson with drawn-on tattoos. In many ways, I fear that this comes down to the film’s “style over substance” issues: like many other “everything and the kitchen sink films,” Filth throws so much stuff at the audience that, inevitably, fatigue sinks in. Compare this to the groodiest moments in Boyle’s masterpiece and it’s easy to see how less can, indeed, often be more.
Ultimately, I found myself quite taken with Filth, even though it’s several solid steps below Trainspotting. McAvoy is pitch-perfect throughout and is just good enough to warrant watching the film: regardless of your tolerance for the debauchery on display, McAvoy is outstanding and turns in a real “actor’s performance.” If you can forgive the film its excesses and step over the plot holes that begin to spread like wildfire in the second half (my least favorite being the revelation that Bunty doesn’t realize it’s Bruce that’s been prank-calling her: Really? I mean…really?), I think that you’ll find Filth to be a massively entertaining examination of one of the slimiest cinematic slugs to slither its way across the silver screen in some time. You might not be able to stand in Bruce’s corner (I’d be kind of scared if you could) but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing him get his just desserts. Filth might not be Trainspotting but, for patient and tolerant viewers, it just might be the next best thing.