[30 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Why isn’t James McAvoy a bigger star? He’s been part of Oscar winning efforts (The Last King of Scotland), mainstream blockbusters (Wanted, X-Men: First Class) , and quirky indie efforts (The Last Station, Trance) and yet he’s still considered a bit of a B-lister. He doesn’t open a film, he’s not automatically assumed for the lead in upcoming prestige productions, and while giving great performance after great performance, he seems stuck in the same subpar career arc as Clive Owen and Jude Law (read: good looking guys—god-awful script choices). Filth, his latest effort, will be viewed as yet another foray into confused career territory. McAvoy himself is terrific in the film, giving the kind of tour de force turn that would normally land one an Oscar nod. Instead, the rest of Jon S. Baird’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel undermines the very power his onscreen personality is generating.
McAvoy is Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, a harrowing hedonistic nightmare of debauched behavior and psychological schisms. He is addicted to various drugs, drinks way too much, curses like a sailor, is patently racist, and suffers from a stunted sexuality that sees him eager to bed anything that will give him the time of day. Desperate for a promotion he hopes will save his marriage, he undermines the rest of his law enforcement workmates through various “games”, each one crafted to corrupt and destroy them. When he is put in charge of the murder of a young Japanese man, Robertson instantly recognizes a chance to get in good with his boss (John Sessions). On the other hand, his out of control actions, including the tormenting of his best buddy Clifford (Eddie Marsan) may end up destroying everything he’s worked so hard to achieve.
With a fragmented narrative that frequently falls in and out of fantasy and a storyline that suffers from the needs of a last act denouement, Filth wouldn’t fly without McAvoy. Unlike the similarly styled Dom Hemingway (featuring another handsome devil—the aforementioned Mr. Law—going the gratuitous scum slumming route) from a couple of weeks back, there’s no real desire on the part of writer/director Baird to give Welsh’s work the detail it needs. Instead, he lets his actors do all the heavy lifting and they come up trumps. While McAvoy takes the lead (he is in every scene in the film), he gets great supporting help from Marsan, Sessions, Jamie Bell (as a rookie cop/junkie aiming for the same promotion), Imogene Poots, Brian McCardie, Emun Elliot and Gary Lewis. Even with his minimal time onscreen (and oddball Terry Gilliam-esque make-up design during some energy-sapping hallucinations) Jim Broadbent is terrific.
So the question becomes, why is the film so underwhelming? Why don’t we connect with Robertson and his personal dilemma? At first, the answer seems obvious. He’s a flaming asshole. He’s an awful man doing awful things. The character is clearly conceived as the kind of anti-hero you hate to love, and thanks to the bravado McAvoy brings to it, you can’t help but find favor in his unrepentant evil. Even when he’s acting very badly, we’re in. So how are we supposed to then shift our sensibilities and sympathize when Robertson goes all soft and blubbery, when he lets his vulnerabilities show through and attempts to sway our already made up mindset? You see, we like this jerk. We don’t like the whiny little whelp he becomes. During a confrontation with Poots, McAvoy breaks down, stressing the sorry state of his life with a desire to do better…and we don’t buy it. When he’s snorting coke and screwing his co-workers’ wives, we’re onboard. When he’s making obscene phone calls, we’re fine. All the stuff about his dead brother and MIA wife? As Robertson would say, it’s bollocks.
Thus the problem facing relative neophyte Baird. All Trainspotting temptations aside (we waited to see if you recognized Welsh’s name before offering up this reference point), material like this can’t be grounded in reality. Danny Boyle got this. Paul McGuigan (The Acid House) and Rob Heydon (Ecstasy) didn’t. Only one of these men made a masterpiece, and he’s the only one with an Oscar sitting on his mantle. True, Filth is the only one of the also-rans that comes closest to matching Boyle’s buoyant vision, but here it feels like copycatting. Instead of discovering his own muse, he simply borrows from his betters. That means we get occasional mash cut, weird asides, lots of motion sickness inducing zooms, camera effects, and a soundtrack with song selections so painfully obvious both Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are wincing in artistic agony.
Besides, Baird can match his main character’s chutzpah. He doesn’t want to dive too deeply into the various perversions on display. Instead, he plays at keeping a weird distance even as Robertson is masturbating to newspaper pin-ups and photocopying his penis. This filmmaker never lets us experience the highs that the character is indulging in. Instead, we are supposed to be shocked, then sympathetic, and then sickened by what we see. That’s supposed to be enough, and yet, it isn’t. Robertson is a surreal center for a film like this, and since there are mysteries to be unraveled as well, there has to be service to the storyline and the resolution. Trainspotting didn’t have such a structure. It’s day in the life designs helped support, not stifle, the problematic pleasure-seeking.
And yet we continue to stick with things long after anything emotionally effective could conceivably occur. By the time we’ve figured out that the mirage of his marriage (and the hyper-stylized versions of his “wife”) is nothing more than a figment of his failing imagination, as we see his plans backfire and blister, as we recognize the pointlessness of everything involved, we still root for Robertson…and it’s because of McAvoy. Without him, a movie like Filth would fail to find any real value whatsoever. With him, it carries on past the problems to be a somewhat worthwhile experience.