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Review: Filth (2014)

Filth (2014)

Directed by: Jon S. Baird

Premise: A corrupt police detective (James McAvoy) suffering from mental illness and substance abuse vies for a promotion by manipulating the other detectives in contention but his gasp on reality begins to slip.

What Works: Filth was based on the book by Irvine Welsh, who had also written the novel Trainspotting, and like that film adaptation, Filth has a delightfully demented tone. The first half recalls movies like A Clockwork Orange, The Rules of Attraction, and The Wolf of Wall Street in that the filmmakers take no uncertain glee in being socially inappropriate. The movie alternates between scenes of violence, sexuality, drug use, and office politics all the while narrated by a main character who provides a glib and profane commentary. Despite its excesses, the filmmakers show an appropriate level of restraint. The movie is tightly constructed and its outrages are staged in a way that emphasize the humor of the scene and the disposition of the characters rather than lingering on the act itself. Filth is heavily stylized and the filmmakers make effective use of its subjective form, including bizarre insert shots and cut-aways to the lead character’s delusions. The visual style of Filth is complemented by an off-the-wall performance by James McAvoy as the debauched police detective. McAvoy is on a tear in this film and he is able to give the crass dialogue the delivery that it deserves. Something that distinguishes McAvoy’s performance in Filth from similar characters such as Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street is the nuance and moments of vulnerability that McAvoy and the filmmakers provide. That is one of the things that the filmmakers of Filth do right; the picture recognizes the underlying psychology of his addiction and the story gradually reveals the motivation for his actions. The combination of McAvoy’s performance with the energetic filmmaking style and the visual flourishes gives the audience an experience that is as raw as it is consistently surprising.

What Doesn’t: As its very title suggests, Filth is a movie that will have a limited appeal. The moviemakers push the boundaries of visceral outrage pretty far and the picture is going to revolt a certain segment of the audience, especially those who demand that the main character be sympathetic. That is part of the point of the movie, that the main character be an insufferable monster, but what the filmmakers actually accomplish with all of the visceral shocks is debatable. In its second half, Filth begins to slip. The energy of the first half subsides as McAvoy’s character gradually loses control of his addictions. In this respect, Filth is somewhat predictable. This is an addiction narrative so astute viewers will recognize where all of this is going. The joy of watching a dastardly character is in being able to vicariously experience the thrill of misbehaving but this joy is generally tempered in the end by punishment. The dirty deeds of Filth are amusing enough but when the movie transitions toward comeuppance it does so with decreasing interest. Near the conclusion, secrets about the character are finally revealed and the movie goes off the rails in ways from which it never recovers. When the truth is revealed it is both unexpected and underwhelming and the result is more confusing than it is illuminating.

Bottom Line: Filth is a strange movie in that it is simultaneously novel and familiar. The visual style and James McAvoy’s performance give the movie an edge but the picture’s themes and outrages have already been explored in other movies and it does not add much to the genres of the addict or the corrupt cop. It is a well-made film but like a lot of movies based on shock and awe the thrill subsides quickly.

Episode: #489 (May 4, 2014)