Filth came out several months ago here in the UK (hence its inclusion in my best indie films of 2013 list), and it doesn’t surprise me that it took so long to get a proper U.S. release. This is not a film made to corner the American market, this is a film that will offend as many as it entertains, a film with glorious, spiralling nihilism at its very core – and I love the hell out of it. Featuring a barnstormer of a performance from James McAvoy and more glaring immorality than you could shake an army of sticks at, this is the best Irvine Welsh adaptation since Trainspotting, and in my mind at least, quite possibly a wee bit better.
McAvoy is the whirling, perpetually hungover denizen of lechery that is Bruce Robertson, a less than stand-up member of the Edinburgh constabulary. There are wrap-arounds about the murder of a foreign teenager and the pursuit of a promotion, but this is much more the story of a life in collapse. It’s fair to say that Bruce isn’t a very happy man, and he spends much of his screen time in a semi-resigned nose-dive, switching between pills, booze and manipulation at a rate that would make Nicolas Cage’s Bad Lieutenant blush.
Yet Bruce isn’t some mere figure of gratuitous entertainment. McAvoy inhabits every inch of him, filling the character with a volatile mix of rage and melancholy. The devil comes in many guises, but Bruce – as much as he would like to be – isn’t one of them. In spite of all his postulating and elaborate schemes, he’s really just a lonely, lost soul who long ago forgot the way back home. It’s an unglamorous role, yet McAvoy hurls himself at it with reckless abandon, bouncing between fury and terror like a red-nosed pinball.
Filth refuses to pull any punches, and its combination of debauched revelry and emotional heft is a fearsome double-offensive that tugs you in opposing directions and spits you out in a torn up heap as the credits roll. I’ve seen it a few times now, and I still struggle to form coherent sentences after sitting through it. It’s an all-out assault of a movie, with buckets of Gothic foreboding lavished over an Edinburgh that has never looked grimmer, and I couldn’t adore every grease-stained, coke-snorting second of it any more if I tried. Oh, and Jim Broadbent dresses up as a giant tape worm.
It ultimately boils down to personal taste: Filth is not a film for the faint of heart, or those looking to hang on to any semblance of a sunny disposition. It’s dank and dark and more than a little bit scary. It’s easy to imagine Werner Herzog gleefully cackling his way through it, as this is a film that doesn’t as much stare in to his beloved Neitzchian Abyss as eyeball it from across the room before sprinting over and licking it. If you’re put off by the prospect of Abyss-licking, chances are Filth isn’t going to be for you, and I wouldn’t blame you either. To truly appreciate and understand Bruce’s magnificent fall from grace requires the kind of raucously sadistic mindset that will be all but alien to the good and the kindhearted.
Rarely has a title been more appropriate, as Filth is indeed filthy in every conceivable way. From the grubby streets to the grubby men that walk them, every frame hints at a grime-coated former grandeur – a better time and a better place when Bruce Robertson was a happy and semi-adjusted man. If you can make it beyond the surface sheen of grease and heinous immorality, Filth is a heavy-hitting, labyrinthine and surprisingly poignant tale of a man trying to fill the holes in his heart by digging deeper ones. It’s oddly powerful stuff, and the combination of joy and devastation I experienced upon first seeing it led me to conclude that I’m a pretty awful person. But you know what? I like being awful, and I bloody love this film.
Packed with raucous sadism and nuanced melancholy, Filth is a cinematic force to be reckoned with.