★★ / ★★★★
“Filth,” based on the screenplay and directed by Jon S. Baird, commits one big miscalculation: By the end, it tries to convince us that deep down the main character is a good person. He simply is not, despite his circumstances—which, one might argue, are the results of his actions—and there is nothing wrong by leaving the protagonist as is. It is the brave thing to do. No, it is the right thing to do for this kind of material.
A promotion to become detective inspector is up for grabs and Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) wants it so badly that he has already put several plots in motion designed to humiliate his co-workers (Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, Emun Elliott, Gary Lewis, Brian McCardie), preferably as publicly as possible. He is convinced that if he gets the job, his family will be one again.
The script is dirty, alive, and full of energy. Though it fails to create a convincing work environment, especially since there is murder case is involved, there is anticipation in what might happen next, who will be used—willingly or not—to set certain vehicles in motion, and what sort of lines Bruce chooses to cross just so he can get a smidgen of an advantage over the rest of his competitors. This is a portrait of a man who is always checking if he is ahead of the game. If he thinks he is second place, his aim would be to destroy the competition.
But watching a series of bad behaviors begins to get exhausting about halfway through. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Bruce had been a rotten person but is actually great in his line of work—so good at it that if he did end up snagging the promotion, we would, ironically, feel relieved about the fact? Instead, the screenplay is superficial in that it appears to be stuck in showing how “bad” he is: alcoholic, addicted to cocaine, misogynistic, homophobic. It fails to show Bruce as smart, pragmatic, quick to think on his feet when shoved into a corner—the very qualities necessary, in theory, to earn a higher supervisory rank.
Dream-like sequences and short hallucinatory shots do not work. These techniques are used as crutches—shortcuts—to communicate Bruce’s mindset as quickly as possible. As a result, there is neither depth nor dimension in how or what we come to discover about him. This proves problematic during the final quarter of the picture because we are asked to sympathize with him. It does not work because not enough time and effort is put into creating a whole person with whom we may grow to care about over time. Thus, the practical decision would have been to let Bruce be bad to the bone through and through especially since that is the material’s strength in the first place.
Based on Irvine Walsh’s novel, the core of “Filth” is quite soft when it should have been as hard as a diamond. There are all sorts of profanities but they are nothing new. Remove them from the equation and what remains is a standard picture with enough attitude to keep it barely afloat. The same cannot be said about better movies of its type, like Danny Boyle’s fast-talking “Trainspotting” and Martin McDonagh’s swaggering “In Bruges,” because there are more layers to them.