Before plunging too completely into Octoberween, it’s important to take some time and just review the pre-Halloween months, because after Halloween it’s officially Oscar Season until February, and people often end up about forgetting about the movies they saw February-September. It’s also easy to forget about all those indie movies that slipped past you during their theatrical tour. This week’s article is about one of those.
The Plot: Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is a despicable, manipulative, cruel-hearted bastard. When a promotion suddenly becomes available in the police department, he must use his cunning and general ruthlessness to beat out the competition: hotshot junkie Ray Lennox (Jamie Bell), ass-kissing newbie Amanda Drummond (Imogen Poots), possibly metrosexual Peter Inglis (Emun Elliott), dimwitted Gus Bain (Gary Lewis), and Nazi Dougie Gillman (Brian McCardie). Believing a promotion will win him back his wife and daughter, Robertson will stop at nothing to get it, conniving to bring down his competition and maybe a few supporting characters along the way for the hell of it; such roles are filled out by Eddie Marsan, Shirley Henderson, John Sessions, and Jim Broadbent.
Filth is based on the novel of the same name by esteemed Scottish writer Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting. Similar to that work, Filth is in many ways a comedy, but it is the blackest of comedies, and once again like Trainspotting, it is filled to the brim with black magic realism and fantastic elements, because the main character spends most of the film hallucinating. Oh man, does he ever have some weird hallucinations in this movie, but that’s what you get for having some of everything and nothing in moderation.
As I mentioned, Bruce Robertson is, in every way, a despicable bastard. His basic plan for advancement is to embarrass, shame, and demoralize his competition in the most public way possible so that they cannot, for political reasons, be given the responsibility of the new position. So, he lies, he cheats, he drinks, he starts fights, he does drugs, and he curses like a sailor. Despite this, there’s something strangely captivating about him. We can enter into a movie like this and be willing to give an hour and forty-five minutes to a totally unlikable character. Usually, I’d say that it’s because we like the idea that maybe deep down inside he’s not a complete asshole, but Filth has no pretense to that effect. Robertson crosses a very troubling line a few times and does some truly irredeemable things. The first time he does cross that line is so shocking and so disgusting that it nearly took me out of the movie. That was probably fifteen minutes in, and obviously I kept watching. But why?
Part of it is James McAvoy. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Since he’s usually something of a quintessential British pretty boy, this role was something I’d never seen from him. His performance is ultimately flawless. It is so difficult to take on a purely detestable leading role and carry an entire movie without defaulting to some cheap tricks to make the audience not hate you. McAvoy doesn’t do that. He recognizes that the audience is supposed to hate his character, and he’s willing to take the brunt of that hatred if need be. I can’t speak for other viewers, but I found him impossible to hate. He takes on a challenging task and sees it through faultlessly. And yes, his charisma and theatricality (without chewing the scenery) is enough to bar you from turning off the movie, unless the content really does just disturb you too much.
The other thing that’s helpful is that no one at any point in the movie asks you to forgive Robertson for his actions. Often, filmmakers will desperately try to make someone like this sympathetic, and fall utterly short. In my experience however, the best criminals are the ones that you can explain without having to excuse. It’s important to understand why they did what they did, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel bad for them. Irvine Welsh is pretty good at writing this kind of character. When you think of Robertson, think of Begby (played by Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting), but a lot worse. Welsh recognizes that sometimes people just do wrong. Bad guys are important, because without evils in the world, how can anyone be good? How can you brave if there’s nothing to fear? He treats the bad as just another inherent part of humanity—an upsetting, filthy part, but an equal part—and not something that should just be brushed under the proverbial rug. To quote the film, “Sometimes it takes a wrongdoer to show you when you’re doing wrong.”
Filth is a challenging film. It challenges the actors, the director, the writer, and the audience alike. Nothing about it is particularly easy. It goes from laugh-out-loud funny to truly disturbing in a matter of moments, and then back again. In the end, though, it’s a good film. McAvoy especially steals the show in what I can only hope will be indicative of a future of equally challenging and new roles. I don’t think I could actually recommend this movie to that many people. Just watch the first fifteen minutes and decide from there, I guess. It sort of makes you want to have a shower when it’s done, but really, a movie called Filth should have that effect.