Directed by: Jon S. Baird. I checked this one out, not because I thought it actually looked like a good movie in its own right—it totally didn’t—but because I read and was impressed by the Irvine Welsh book by the same name, and because that other great Welshian source material, Trainspotting, was one of my favourite books, favourite movies, and favourite book-to-movie adaptations of all time. So really, there was no way I could resist, I was a goner. That being said, Jon S. Baird with this movie does infinitely less justice to the book than Danny Boyle’s movie did to Trainspotting, and on its own merits even, it’s a tremendous compliment to even compare this film in the same breath to Trainspotting. But, that aside, I’ll try to give this movie a fair shake without constantly comparing it to Trainspotting (even though, like The Rum Diary, a huge amount of its production and publicity dollars and clout was borrowed directly from the success, critical appreciation and artistic legitimacy of its predecessor, and so the comparison is made by the filmmakers themselves over and over in an attempt to allow the greatness of the other movie to rub off on this one by osmosis—“From the creator of Trainspotting” is pretty fucking disingenuous, don’t you think? The message is clear: You should see this movie because it’s basically Trainspotting 2.0, only in this case, they would have been better off without ever comparing this thing within 100 miles of Trainspotting. Compared to a dumb movie, this is a pretty smart and interesting movie, but compared to Trainspotting, my god!).
This movie, first of all, is an incredibly less insightful, less brave and less interesting work than the book it comes from. Welsh’s novel invites the reader into an increasingly sordid, dark, disgusting and horrifying world, and it does so by aligning us very, very intimately with its repulsive first person narrator/protagonist Bruce Robertson (who, personally, always struck me as a bit older than baby-faced McAvoy; someone like, say, Peter Mullan, but anyway). The novel reads like a horror adventure into the nether regions of the depths of humanity, a William Burroughs acid trip written by the Marquis de Sade. How much more of an awful motherfucker can this guy be? And how much longer can we follow this before we’re repulsed away? But then, Welsh introduces the ingenious device of the typographical tape worm that actually, visually interrupts the narrative, giving us two very jarring, very distinct narratives going on. In the book, the story of a mentally deranged, rapist, racist, alcoholic, drug-addicted, sex-addicted, walking condemnation of all of the mainstream, misogynist, macho, insecure hetero-masculine tabloid garbage culture in the Western world turns out to be the story of a fractured identity, a very deep and elusive schizoid self-loathing consciousness in this person, brought about, ultimately, by the miner’s strikes in the Thatcher era, and by Bruce’s turning his back on his working class cohort and going for the superficial gain of power and respect that the badge gives him. He’s a strike-breaker who (if memory serves) stands against his own family (and maybe the death of a brother in there somewhere?). But in the movie, they take away the Thatcherite business (though I’m not sure why—this easily could have been a modest period piece like Trainspotting if they were worried about the timing, or, God forbid, get an older actor), and we’re left with a pretty weak excuse for a back story. A younger brother who dies in an accident, and this accident haunts Bruce for the rest of his life, and the whole thing about being a cop is a little side note, and the whole wellspring of awfulness inside his black pit of a soul is supposed to be explained away by some stock Hollywood “It wasn’t your fault” garbage. And, besides it all, this character just isn’t as awful as he could be. He’s still an awful fucking person, but the movie papers over his truly despicable acts. He’s not a rapist, just a pervert. And to me, that makes this movie infinitely less interesting and less brave than it could have been. If this guy is just engaging in “hijinks,” if his “games” amount to a bunch of practical jokes, then he’s basically Hawkeye Pierce with some foul language, and as entertaining as that might be, it’s not what the story of Filth should be, in my opinion, and it certainly falls far short of what made the book such an interesting source material in the first place.
I could get sucked into a vacuum of negativity about this movie, but I’ll just take it as read that this just isn’t a very good film for a lot of reasons, and that it should really only be viewed for academic purposes or extremely bad escapism, and instead focus on some of the positive things. The acting is pretty great! Even though I still think he’s too baby-faced, and he’s not quite a great actor or anything, McAvoy is pretty good in general and this role was the best thing he’s done so far. The supporting roles in this are amazing. Shirley Henderson and Eddie Marsan are absolutely perfect in their roles, and seeing them here reminds me of why they’re two of my favourite actors in the UK (or anywhere). Jamie Bell popped up again after Snowpiercer, and I guess he’s a big deal in the UK for Billy Elliot, which I haven’t seen. He does an okay job here, as does Jim Broadbent (although his role is just a variation on his Brazil and Moulin Rouge roles), and Imogen Poots is fine (again, considering what she has to work with). I always love seeing Gary Lewis, one of my favourite Scots character actors, hamming it up as a total dolt, especially because in my mind, he’ll always be the incredibly deep and tortured character of the father in the last Prime Suspect series. And, really, for all that I hated about this movie, I think they got the ending right. I believe it follows the book, but even if it doesn’t, Bruce’s end here is about as good as the film can give, and about as good as he deserves. The whole idea of having the main character look into the camera at the last second, grinning, and then a split-second shot of the chair giving way, and cut to the credits, certainly borrows from Goodfellas, from Snatch, and probably a bunch of other movie moments, but to me, it happens so quickly, and it’s over so quickly, and it’s so disposable, it really seems fitting. Part of me wants to go easy on this film and say that it was an admirable attempt to get a crazy source material on screen, and to do so in a unique way, and that it makes a memorable, bizarre, disturbing, funny mark on the cultural landscape. But another part of me just thinks that it was a total waste of time, that you’re really just better off reading Filth, watching Trainspotting, and moving on with your life. Maybe Ecstasy will be better.