It’s possible that Irvine Welsh’s novel Filth might have been unfilmable, but that certainly didn’t stop writer and director Jon S. Baird from trying. It’s an admirable attempt to encapsulate a decent into abject madness and abasement at the hands of one of Welsh’s most memorably misanthropic creations, if it’s not an altogether successful film overall. It’s film that exists and almost succeeds for two key reasons: James McAvoy’s exemplary high wire act in the lead and the final thirty minutes.
It’s the mostly aimless and shambling story of Scottish copper Bruce Robertson (McAvoy), the kind of bad lieutenant only Abel Ferrara or Werner Herzog could love. He’s vying for a promotion at his Edinburgh precinct that he thinks can bring him closer to his estranged wife and son. He’s caught up in a murder investigation of a foreign exchange student that he seems to have precious little interest in actually solving. He’s often trying to play nice with a nerdy type that his buddies at the Masonic lodge want him to be nice to. All the while he’s living out his sometimes dangerous sexual fantasies, hovering drugs through every possible orifice, and generally telling everyone around him to fuck off when someone catches him in a lie.
It’s not that Filth is a particularly bad adaptation of Welsh. The cynical, barbed prose and dialogue created by Welsh ports over quite wonderfully here. There’s just far too much going on for Baird to really get a handle on the material properly. The assembly of scenes is quite poor, often with unrelated sequences just crashing into each other at times without any regard for rhyme or reason. After a while, Baird doesn’t seem to be developing the character of Bruce, but instead listing off every possible trait the character could ever have in quick succession without even developing any of them. He’s a constantly hallucinating, undercutting, dishonest, often insulting, BDSM aficionado with a bunch of addictions, a penchant for making Frank Sidebottom inspired dirty prank calls that’s haunted by the past. This is all in the first 20 minutes of the film and Baird unwisely feels like he’s sprinting to get everything in lest he miss something. This doesn’t even mention this film’s potentially biggest reveal in the final act, which once again isn’t so much a plot twist, but another character trait added onto a film already suffering from a lack of story and an abundance of tics and mannerisms. Toss all of these traits into a film with no less than four separate plotlines that aren’t going anywhere and it’s like being stuck in a pinball machine that isn’t keeping score.
So with that in mind, it’s nothing short of astonishing that McAvoy is brilliantly able to keep it all straight. His performance is egoless, go-for-broke, and gleefully demented. There’s nothing too extreme for him to try it at least once, and when the film requires the viewer to actually start to feel pangs of sympathy for Bruce, McAvoy nails perfectly how to make the character’s most tangible fears the most resonant. It’s just a shame that McAvoy is such a huge presence with too much character development that he often doesn’t have much to work with.
Eddie Marsan has a few nice moments as the put upon dork that Bruce almost mocks and sets up for sport. Imogen Poots gets the best scene in the film as a strong rival detective going after the same position. Her dressing down of the chauvinistic and incredibly mixed up Bruce comes from a place of genuine concern rather than outright hatred, and their chemistry together makes one wish they had more than a very small handful of scenes together. Jamie Bell, on the other hand, is wasted in a kind of thankless role as a fellow junkie detective, and he’s barely more interesting than the other faceless cops. Also wasted is Jim Broadbent as Bruce’s shrink/a vision he sees whenever he’s tripping balls.
Filth feels like it’s merely killing time until it can get to those final thirty minutes where Baird can finally explain why Bruce is such a wreck. It’s a decent enough reveal, but maybe not worth all the effort. Everything that comes before it is so episodic that the impact ends up a bit dulled. Sequences like a montage of officers photocopying their dicks at a Christmas party set to the strains of “Mr. Vain” and an ill fated trip to Hamburg are amusing in the moment, but really only because they aren’t doing anything to set up the characters any further. It’s an exhausting film, and probably purposefully so, but I’m not sure if this was the type of overkill Baird should have been aiming for.