Held together by a legitimately fantastic performance by James McAvoy, ‘Filth’ is a bad-cop movie that, if nothing else, lives up to the promise of its title. This may be the best adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel since ‘Trainspotting’, but that’s not quite the compliment it seems. It’s an effectively nasty film, but one that also showcases how difficult it is to translate Welsh to the screen.
‘Filth’ falls into a small subgenre of bad-cop films that peaked with Abel Ferrara’s brilliant ‘Bad Lieutenant‘ and received a few decent new additions to the fold recently with Werner Herzog’s wacko sequel ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans‘ and John McDonagh’s ‘The Guard‘. The subgenre is exactly what it sounds like – a series of movies about police officers behaving badly. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a searing drama about police corruption. Other times it’s a dark comedy about reprehensible behavior with a cop at the center for added irony. ‘Filth’ falls into the second category. Given that the story initially sprang from the mind of Irvine Welsh, it’s safe to say the depravity on display is of the highest order. While ‘Filth’ was never his best book, it was a good one. In the hands of writer/director Jon S. Baird, it’s a pretty damn good movie too, just far from perfect.
James McAvoy stars as a charming sociopath with a sprinkling of delusional insanity. He’s the type of cop who’ll happily threaten witnesses for sexual favors, go through piles of narcotics as performance aids, maliciously play his co-workers off each other, and generally abuse his authority by any and all means. He’s a misogynist, an alcoholic, a homophobe, a pervert, an addict and an asshole. You know, a fun guy. Taking place over Christmas, the film is a vicious black comedy told from so deep inside the protagonist’s head that the audience has to work out the comedic tone for themselves. You’ll either marvel at the filth on display and giggle like a schoolboy in the back of the class, or get offended for any of the hundreds of reasons to be offended by the movie. Latch onto the dark comedy and you’ll be pulled on a ride in which you love and hate seeing the world through the character’s twisted point of view until his inevitable downfall, when all realities and sympathies must be questioned.
That’s standard bad-cop comedy fare, but given Scottish accents and a fearless disregard for good taste. Welsh is a master of such material, and writer/director Baird understands his source enough to know exactly where the laughter and tears should fall in the narrative. ‘Filth’ feels like Welsh’s writing more than any adaptation since ‘Trainspotting‘, while also showing how perfectly pitched that movie was whenever Baird falls short.
‘Trainspotting’ worked as a movie because of the added structure and cynical comedy brought in by screenwriter John Hodge, as well as the visual invention and prevailing optimism of director Danny Boyle (who somehow managed to find uplifting moments in a tale of self-destructive heroin addicts). Baird tries to repeat those tricks without directly copying Hodge or Boyle. For the most part, he pulls it off. His stylized aesthetic and gallows humor lighten the tone just enough to let the audience in. However, Baird’s tone is ultimately a little too exaggerated to make the required dramatic impact, and the story is burdened by a final twist that’s easy to pull off in a first-person perspective novel and damn near impossible on film. Baird has some clever ideas on how to overcome the greatest challenges of bringing ‘Filth’ to the screen, but just can’t crack all of them. That’s probably as much a result of the source material as any of the filmmaker’s failings.
While the movie surrounding him might be inconsistent at times, James McAvoy never goes wrong in an extraordinary lead performance that’s easily one of the actors finest turns to date. Given a chance to let loose his native accent and twisted sense of humor, McAvoy clearly relishes his nasty role and digs deep into it without ever letting go. He’s hilarious when he should be, heartbreaking when required, charming when needed, and frightening throughout. Unlike the talented cast around him who vary dramatically from playing cartoons (Jim Broadbent) to caricatures resembling real people (the great Eddie Marsden), McAvoy never loses sight of the real tragic man beneath the all the filth. It’s a brilliant performance that often pushes the movie to the heights of bleak comedy transcendence that Baird obviously shot for.
Because of those shining moments, the movie is a success that demands to be seen by fans of McAvoy, Welsh and this subgenre. The fact that it doesn’t quite all hold together is a definite disappointment, but any film that manages to reach these highs (or depths depending on your taste) of black comedy bliss is never without interest. You may feel like you need a shower afterwards, but in the best possible way.