Movie a Day Blog loves a blunt title, and FILTH (2013, Netflix Streaming) certainly lives up to its disreputable billing. Once again, we’re on a downward spiral of a power-hungry cop fighting a losing battle with his demons, and taking us prisoner along with him.
James McAvoy is an Edinburgh detective gunning for a big promotion, and then doing everything in his out-of-control life to make sure it doesn’t happen. He’s a sexual predator of every available woman, he inhales massive amounts of cocaine, drinks to the point of stupefaction, and collects bribes the way children gather candy on Halloween.
The Scottish setting makes the dialogue sometimes impossible to decipher for the non-U.K. resident — no wonder almost half of Scotland voted for independence, because for all intents and purposes, they speak a foreign language. FILTH is based on a novel by Irvine Welsh, a cult Scottish writer most famous for providing the basis for TRAINSPOTTING (1996), also featuring a collection of sordid characters.
Welsh is unsparing in his descriptions of personal degradation, and FILTH’s writer-director Jon S.Baird, also a Scotsman, is quite faithful to this tone in his dramatization. McAvoy goes from bad to worse to horrible, and each time we think he’s hit rock bottom, he falls to a new subterranean level, becoming more and more fucked-up and despicable to everyone around him.
Obsessed with becoming a Detective Inspector, McAvoy goes to great lengths to sabotage all of his rivals, good Scottish character actors, especially Jamie Bell as a young recruit McAvoy takes under his crippled wing, and does his best to make him a coke-and-hooker addict. Bell has a nice payoff for his character by the story’s end, and his solid performance helps anchor a movie that swings in tone as wildly as McAvoy’s binges. An actor of the calibre of Eddie Marsan is largely wasted in a cartoonish subplot with horny wife Shirley Henderson. The superb Jim Broadbent seems to have wandered in from a completely different movie, maybe one made by Terry Gilliam.
The major problem with FILTH is that it can’t decide what it is: an experimental film in which McAvoy beholds grotesque and self-indicting images wherever he turns, especially those of a brother he let die, and a mainstream “bad cop” genre movie in which power and self-abuse become inextricably intertwined. There are times when Baird feels like a filmmaker with ADHD; one great moment followed by terrible melodrama, or a sharp scene followed by a stupid one.
We’ve also seen McAvoy’s character before; he would find a kindred soul in the protagonists of Abel Ferrara’s BAD LIEUTENANT (19992) and Antoine Fuqua’s TRAINING DAY (2001), although by the end of FILTH, he might even outdo them.
But what’s the point? Seeing a creep and a bully slowly kill himself with drink and drug is not entertaining, it’s depressing, to the point where you begin to root for McAvoy to get to the business at hand and just off himself. The actor is unflinchingly brave in his portrayal, but he evokes the opposite of empathy.
FILTH is typical of a new type of cinema that exults in degradation; it’s no longer a cautionary tale (who can really relate to this excessive behavior?), but instead a kind of celebration of disgust. The finale of FILTH is strangely soothing, because it allows usto enjoy one lone moment of satisfaction. Thanks, James McAvoy, for making the right decision when it really counted.