Thursday, September 26, 2013

'Filth' (2013) directed by Jon S. Baird

The first thing you notice is the teeth.  Glistening white chompers nestled serenely in McAvoy's cosy gums.  These are the teeth of a movie star, carefully sculpted into existence by a team of top showbiz dentists.  What they are not is the teeth of a drug-raddled, chain-smoking, alcoholic policeman on the edge.  It's been a while since I read Irvine Welsh's Filth and much of it has faded from memory, but two things wedged themselves deep within my mind.  One were the bizarre hallucination sequences involving a talking tapeworm.  The other was the central character of Bruce Robertson, who is about as repulsive a hero as I've ever encountered in any fictional work. 

Both book and film show a policeman spiralling into insanity, repeatedly committing acts of such demented sociopathy, a man engaged in long term evil plans to ruin his co-workers, fuck every woman that is unfortunate enough to cross his path and shovel enough cocaine up his nose to turn his skull into a snowglobe.  There's a murder to be solved and a promotion to be won as the backbone of the narrative, but both film and book are only tangentially concerned with moving the plot forward, and far more interested in dissecting what makes this monster cop tick.

Filth had a reputation as unfilmable, and my memories of the pitch black places the book goes made me tend to agree with the summary.  Prime among these reasons is that Robertson's absolute scumminess is only relatable due to Welsh's unique style (for example the text of the book itself grows long tube-like structures composed entirely of the word "eat").  The movie tries to emulate a structure like this with frequent cutaways to different styles to illustrate the mental state of Robertson, resulting in film that feels not aesthetically dissimilar to Natural Born Killers.  Filth shuffles it's styles like a deck of cards, moving from a Sin Cityesque film-noir, to musical number, to an extended Stanley Kubrick homage and eventually even taking in an animated sequence.  But even with all this going on, the film runs out of steam very quickly.

Much of this can be laid at the door of the casting of James McAvoy.  He's just not convincing as Bruce Robertson.  In interview he explains how he knew he was physically unsuited for the role, so "bulked out" by eating junk food.  It didn't work. He's still obviously ultra-handsome even when the character reaches the pits of depravity.  There's a nude scene in the film; the book Bruce Robertson is fat, covered in a nasty rash from a prostitute, diseased - basically a walking corpse.  McAvoy though, looks great naked.  His physical attractiveness totally undermines the character: a person who's supposed to be as rotten outside as he is inside.  

To give McAvoy due credit, his failure is not for lack of effort.  He throws himself into the film with such gusto that for all too brief moments everything just about gels and the film works.  These scenes are all too fleeting though, and often what should work is ruined by some rather lead-handed directing.  Much of Filth adopts an appropriate irreverent tone; (probably the only way to get away your lead blackmailing a child into giving him a blowjob) yet when the film tries to edge into genuine pathos or horror it's laughably clumsy.  

Prime among these are hallucination scenes where our lead is tortured by visions of a mysterious dead child.  These are about as disturbing as something out of the Scary Movie series, and that the film apparently expects us to take seriously.  Another tactic is an apparently pointless repeated series of shocks involving a sting on the score and suddenly a character's face is replaced with a grotesque animal mask.  The first time it happens feels like cheap scare. By the tenth time it's just boring.  Also, aside from being a visual reference to the cover of the novel I'm not sure what it means.  One character is... a chicken?  Why? Another mystery are scenes that appear to be an bizarrely out of place homage to Stanley Kubrick, complete with a 2001 style hotel room and Jim Broadbent doing an impression of Aubrey Morris' Mr Deltoid from A Clockwork Orange.  Why?  Who knows.

Filth feels like it's going out of its way to be as unpleasant as possible.  Within the first 15 minutes our lead is blackmailing a child into giving him a blowjob and there's a constant stream of racist, homophobic and sexist invective.  It's not exactly gratuitous, and the presumed intention is to define this cinematic world as repellent.  But I think Filth is prime material for something I've termed 'Al Murray Syndrome'.  This is when you poke fun at racism, sexism and homophobia, but while some of the audience gets it, a far greater portion is just laughing at racism, sexism and homophobia.  Ultimately it's just a bit disturbing to sit in a cinema and hear people giggling away at the word "wog".

As it stands Filth just isn't a very good film.  It's somehow both simultaneously outrageous and a bit boring (and there wasn't even a talking tapeworm!).  The basic subject material of an out of control amoral cop on a drugs bender was done far, far better in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which this film comes across as a very uneven retread of.  Perhaps it's worth it for the (very) fleeting moments where it all works, but even at a short 97 minutes it treads a lot of water.  They said Filth was unfilmable.  Looks like they were right.

Filth is on general release from October 4th

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1 Responses to “'Filth' (2013) directed by Jon S. Baird”

Gladwell Peakington said...
October 2, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Great accurate review old bean. I'm using that 'Al Murray Syndrome' - very astute...

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