By Alan Mattli
Being marketed under the poster tagline “From the creator of Trainspotting“, Filth, in keeping with its scheming main character, is something of a con. Neither director Danny Boyle nor screenwriter John Hodge, whose 1996 account of the Edinburgh drug scene stands tall as a landmark of Scottish cinema, are attached to the project (though they did reunite in 2013 to produce the awful Trance). Written and directed by relative newcomer Jon S. Baird, whose only feature so far has been 2008’s Cass, Filth warrants suchlike marketing because it is based on the eponymous novel by Irvine Welsh, who also penned the literary basis to Trainspotting.
Baird’s con is carried over into the actual movie, which never quite lets on whether or not its refusal to find a meaningful angle is intentional. Centering around corrupt and corrupted Edinburgh police detective Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy, his performance a vast improvement over the one he gave in Trance), Filth touches on a wide range of stylistic and thematic elements without ever quite finding its tone and direction.
While Robertson’s opening voiceover, in which his sarcastic praising of the “successful Scottish race” is all too obviously juxtaposed by shots of overweight Caledonians, seems to pick up the social commentary where Ewan McGregor’s Clockwork Orange-influenced closing monologue in Trainspotting left off, the film soon abandons this line to pursue Bruce’s numerous escapades. These include, apart from a passion for whisky, cocaine and the blackmailing of people he encounters over the course of an unenthusiastic murder investigation, the seduction of a co-worker’s spouse, manipulative attempts to sabotage his colleagues’ promotion campaigns, as well as the verbal and physical abuse of a rich acquaintance (Eddie Marsan).
This spectacle of the unappealing, which undoubtedly evokes Trainspotting, is, as one would imagine, especially from an Irvine Welsh adaptation, generally lacking in subtletly; a fact that is illustrated best by the many scenes of grotesquely violent sex, which soon lose their intial ironic shock value and become tediously repetitive. This is perhaps even the film’s primary problem: it takes such pride in its own “edgy” tastelessness that it is difficult to take its repeated assaults on the senses seriously.
To a degree, this is undercut by the self-aware narrative Baird builds, with Bruce continuously addressing the camera, actively inviting the viewer into his twisted, hedonistic world of self-deception. This technique works in fits: on the formal level, it lends some scenes a certain Guy Ritchie-esque vitality; in others it catches the audience off-guard, such as when Bruce first enters the office of his supervisor (John Sessions) and immediately points out the 2001: A Space Odyssey poster – disregarding the cinematic tradition of not acknowledging the presence of movie posters on the set. (The nod to Kubrick is partially justified by the extreme lighting, which often emanates from white walls and windows.) In other instances however – most notably in an unassertively staged musical number –, Baird’s self-reflexivity falls utterly flat.
And yet, it all works somehow. In spite of its very obvious flaws, the absence of any properly conceived side characters being one of them, Filth is an effective – and surprisingly watchable – black comedy that remains intriguing throughout. It is particularly the second half that proves to be quite affecting, as reality starts to crumble around Bruce, giving way to genuinely unsettling jump scare hallucinations of characters’ heads being replaced by bizarre animal masks, a transformation that seems to be connected to Bruce’s imaginary sessions with a mad psychiatrist (Jim Broadbent). The legitimate character drama Baird finds in the film’s final third is ultimately little more than a red herring because Filth is not so much a carefully crafted movie as an outrageous, if far from perfect, experience.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.