Judge Clark Douglas could use a shower.
This little piggy went to town!
"There is something seriously wrong with me."
Facts of the Case
Bruce (James McAvoy, X-Men: Days of Future Past) is a Scottish police detective aiming for a big promotion. In order to get it, he's willing to do just about anything to embarrass any colleagues who might also have a shot at getting the position. In his spare time (and sometimes while he's still on the job), Bruce conducts a series of "games" (often involving women)—making people emotionally vulnerable and then cruelly taking advantage of that vulnerability. Alas, when he's confronted with an unpleasant reminder from his past, Bruce's cavalier lifestyle begins crashing down around him.
Jon S. Baird's Filth (based on the well-regarded novel by Irvine Welsh) is one of the most self-satisfied cinematic exercises since Michael Haneke's Funny Games. The film consciously attempts to mimic the behavior of its protagonist. It uses its charisma to lure viewers in, attempts to get those viewers emotionally involved, and finally flips a giant middle finger to the audience for caring in the first place. Smart metatextual commentary or smug condescension? Honestly, it doesn't matter, because Baird isn't nearly gifted enough to make his brash movie convincing. Say what you will about Haneke's holier-than-thou experiment—the man's filmmaking skills are strong enough to force viewers to really confront his movies. Perhaps Filth's generic, predictable qualities work in its favor. If it had really managed to get me emotionally involved, I might have hated the ending with a white-hot passion. As it is, I'm content to merely throw up a half-hearted middle finger of my own and move on to the next thing.
The film's first half is one of those movies that insists on beating you over the head with how enthusiastically transgressive it is. Over and over again, we watch Bruce do naughty, naughty things while cheerful pop music plays in the background. Yeah, he's bad, but we're having fun watching him be bad, aren't we? In one early scene, a child shoots a bird at Bruce. Bruce walks over, grabs the child's balloon, pops it and mimics the child's gesture. Oh, that Bruce—he's a character, amirite? His behavior plays like a checklist for any Bad Lieutenant knockoff. He drinks excessively. He does every hard drug known to man. He cheats on his wife with the wives of his co-workers. He solicits oral sex from a minor. He plants evidence. You get the idea.
Eventually—inevitably—the film turns serious. We see a glimpse of a horrifying moment from Bruce's past. Just as our protagonist is attempting to start dealing with this, various aspects of his foolish behavior start coming back to haunt him. It's at this moment that the movie makes its inevitable shift from winking celebration of bad behavior to obligatory condemnation of bad behavior. Call it the Goodfellas maneuver. Or the Trainspotting maneuver. Just don't call it original. It's at this point that many of the pop songs start getting replaced by Clint Mansell's deliberately Requiem for a Dream-ish score, complete with an insistent, see-sawing two-note motif that seems to be trying a little too hard to convince us of how very dire Bruce's situation is.
A lot of films have done this sort of thing before, but Baird makes a valiant effort to make his variation on the old formula feel unique by inserting loads of whimsical touches into the movie. McAvoy keeps looking at the camera with a smirk on his face, Frank Underwood-style. Bruce keeps looking in the mirror and seeing himself as a pig (because he's a cop AND a bad person, get it?), and seeing those around him as other frightening animals. Jim Broadbent appears as a genial psychiatrist, and then starts re-appearing in wild hallucinations which feel like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and a game show. A conversation in a car suddenly transforms into a musical sequence. An animated short plays out over the end credits. It all feels superficial—a phony attempt at depicting madness. True madness doesn't have room for this many formulaic plot developments (including one "big reveal" which most viewers will see coming an hour before it arrives).
To his credit, McAvoy is very good. He does his level best to sell us on Bruce's nastiness and his despair, and there's an energy to his performance which certainly carries much of the movie. In one split-screen sequence, we see McAvoy engaging in a bit of dirty talk with his pal's wife while simultaneously attempting to deal with an emotional breakdown. There's something that feels startlingly honest about it; a certain rawness that escapes the film's confining hyper-stylized trappings. McAvoy doesn't have to tell us what he's thinking—we can see it. The problem is that most of the time, the film insists on having McAvoy tell us what he's thinking, anyway. The crass, cocky narration brings to mind McAvoy's similarly insufferable blathering in Wanted—what draws him to these overwritten parts? The other cast members (including Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan and Imogen Poots) do what they can, but clumsy dialogue goes a long way towards preventing them from making an impact. Even if everyone had succeeded in creating terrific characters, we'd still have to contend with that juvenile ending, which does an awfully good job of making the whole thing seem pointless.
Filth (Blu-ray) has a respectable 1080p/2.35:1 transfer which showcases the film's ridiculously busy visual design. Strangely self-contained scenes featuring Bruce's mysterious wife (Shauna McDonald) are shot like something out of a smoky '50s melodrama, certain scenes of debauchery have bright, headache-inducing colors splashed all over them, serious flashbacks look grim and desaturated…but the image always looks fairly sharp, shorting exceptional detail. Because of the film's stylish nature, there are moments where things look "off," but only when they're supposed to. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is consistently strong and similarly busy, jamming aggressive music, dialogue, narration and sound design into a sweaty, chaotic stew and serving it up with style. Supplements include a commentary with Baird and Welsh, some EPK-style featurettes ("James McAvoy as Detective Bruce Robertson: The Antihero," "On the Set: Merry Filthmas" and "AXS TV: A Look at Filth") and some deleted/extended/alternate scenes.
Filth aims to be shocking, hilarious and gripping. It achieves none of those goals, and ultimately feels like a mediocre knockoff of other, better films from the '90s. For a superior, energetic, twisty, hallucinatory film starring McAvoy, check out Danny Boyle's Trance—a movie which has all of Filth's virtues and few of its weaknesses.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Review content copyright © 2014 Clark Douglas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.