Film review: Filth

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Reviewed by Kate Prendergast

Edited by Siobhan Hodge

Film: Filth
Director: Jon S. Baird
Running Time: 97 minutes
Year of Release: 2013
Language: English

Filthy Good Fun

Filth is a twisted, depraved and brutish piece of work. It is also quite brilliant. Baring its teeth in a maniacal leer, it grabs your arm with a forceps-like grip, shoves you about, and somehow manages to get under your skin an agreeably sordid way.

Christmas bells are ringing in the streets of director Jon S. Baird’s Edinburgh, and Santa Claus is pissing down the granite subway stairs. In the stereotypical gauntlet of a road underpass, a Japanese student is killed after being beaten to a bloody pulp by a gang of violent youths. Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, played with audacious, misanthropic verve by James McAvoy, is assigned to head the investigation. However, Robertson is far more interested in blackmailing underage girls for blowjobs, photocopying penises, and snorting endless cocaine lines into a scummy dawn over pursuing detective leads. The larger part of his energies and perversities goes into playing ‘The Game’— the Machiavellian sport he makes of life, and of which he is an expert and cunning contender. ‘Trust no-one’ is the first rule, and one which he gives priority over all other social or moral credos. Slyly brutalizing his workmates chances of promotion through a sortie of lies, deceit and carefully managed bigotry, he edges towards the vacant position of Inspector— the attainment of which he somehow connects to the settling of his domestic empire and reclaiming of the sexual affections of his ‘tease’ of a wife.

Yet as the film disgorges and discharges up a stream of lechery, an unquiet past steeped in shame and guilt parasitically shreds away at Robertson’s mental equilibrium. Crippling hallucinations reveal his deep repugnance towards the human race, with the men and women around him appearing suddenly topped with the heads of grotesque beasts. Meanwhile, Mrs. Robertson remains elusive. Dressed in burlesque, she materializes in increasingly bizarre interludes between the main drama, where she flirts coyly with us in a hall of mirrors. There are a lot of twists to Filth, a lot of layers to be peeled back and revelations to be seen beneath its scabby outer skin. Although the more prudish of viewers should perhaps mince their cautious way into other viewing areas, the film is far from just an all-out, gratuitous smut-fest.

Based on the novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh, Filth will inevitably suffer a lot of comparisons to Trainspotting— another dark Scottish comedy written by Welsh and brought to the screen in 1996 by Danny Boyle. Whilst Filth may not pulsate with the same voltage of searing electricity as the famed cult classic, and is certainly a little more unsteady on its feet, judgements between the two films shouldn’t be too closely aligned. As director Jon S. Baird (who also produced the film and wrote the screenplay), notes ‘Filth is a personal film, it’s not about a group of young guys. It’s about a guy going into middle age...It’s about his dismantling, dressed up in a load of hilarity, depravity and madness’.

With its virtue indivorcable from its vice, Filth is brash, crude, and at times darkly hilarious. It’s rough and witty dialogue, whip-cracking pace, and surreal forays into the garish phantasmagoria of our anti-hero’s mind give it a keener edge than most of what can be felt in cinema today. Far keener than Thor’s hammer, that’s for sure. The soundtrack (composed by Clint Mansell, who also wrote the score for Requiem for a Dream), mixes relentless and doomy electro-jangles with sarcastically upbeat Christmas ditties, although there was a point when a cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ began to play and I guffawed out loud. The film does mean better than it does melodrama. 

Fortunately, there was enough Scottish interest in this film to secure Baird with a posse of quality actors to give him a good round of top-notch performances. Special mention goes to Eddie Marson, who plays Clifford Blades (aka ‘Bladesay’)—a putty-hearted Stonemason with spectacle lenses as thick as bullet-proof car windows, and who is entirely unmatched against the raw and hard vigour of his Scottish peers. And made all the more endearing because of it. He is Robertson’s only true friend.

It is McAvoy who gives the film its vital kick though, hands down. His brave, no-holds-barred realization of his complex, disassembling and volatile character ensures that Robertson is somehow always more parts human than monster. It’s somewhat bemusing, on retrospect, just how quickly the guy’s yellow teeth can slide behind cherubic ruby lips, and how his blue-chipped eyes are just as likely to reflect a feverish and jaundiced sheen as to spring genuine tears.

If nothing else, Bruce reminds us that the characters that earn their sticking-place in cinema history don’t have to be particularly likeable. They just to fill the screen; attain a mastery over it, our emotions and so our memories—and McAvoy does that with style. Bloody, filthy style.

Filth screens at Luna Leederville from Thursday 21 November 2013.