About ten minutes into Filth (written and directed by Jon S. Baird, from the novel by Irvine Welsh), I was on the verge of deciding that I hated it. I knew exactly why I was feeling like this: I absolutely loathed the central character, played by James McAvoy (X-Men: Apocalypse), and I felt that the entire production was trying way too hard to capture the vibe of that other Irvine Welsh adaptation. Even though I’d read the book about 14 or 15 years ago (Jesus,really?) and knew the major reveal, I went in not fully comprehending how much I could hate a fictional character. And not only that, Bruce Robertson was being played by the faun from Narnia!
But around the midway point I realized that my visceral reaction was exactly how I should be feeling about this movie. The character of Robertson is so outrageously vile, yet played so brilliantly, by McAvoy that I was mesmerized throughout. I’ll be clear, though – at no point in the movie was I rooting for this guy, in fact it was the opposite. I so badly wanted him to get everything he deserved in as violent and wrenching a manner as possible, and this is the power of McAvoy’s sensational performance. When you wait for other movie villains to get their comeuppance, there’s always that side of you that likes them – they’re usually more suave than the hero, confident of their abilities. Y’know, sometimes it would fun to be a villain. In Filth, there is no hero to oppose the villain; he careens through the lives of those around him leaving nothing but destruction and devastation in his wake. He’s the kind of guy that actually exists; you read about them when they do that much harm and eventually get caught. Maybe you know a real asshole like this in your life.
And yet, McAvoy is so great in this role – a lesser talent with the same script would have been forgettable, funny, even, but as the movie continues through to the end, McAvoy imbues this piece of filth with a great depth of humanity, so that by the end I actually wanted him to get better, and when the movie was done I wish it had finished differently. Through McAvoy, I wanted this guy to have a second chance, no matter what he’d done during the previous hour and a half.
Filth shows the power of a great central performance. It’s gold dust. Because the movie itself has some serious issues. As someone who appreciated the book, I didn’t appreciate the changes made, especially to the event that gradually forced the character over the edge. The book leads up to the reveal, and when it actually happens, I still find that scene to be indelibly etched in my mind. There’s nothing that even comes close in the movie version – and considering the content that is in the movie, the omission just doesn’t make sense. Also, the central storyline of the murder of the Japanese student is completely submerged to the point where it feels like an afterthought. It could and should have been front and center, to provide a framework for what the main character stood to gain or lose, and offer him a means to redemption. But it just isn’t there. And Robertson’s “secret” is handled pretty ineptly, after such an extended, playful tease. If I hadn’t read the book, I think I would have been angry at how it was resolved – it’s the biggest criticism I have of the movie. Then there’s the matter of how Baird seems to want to make this Irvine Welsh adaptation to play like a long-lost cousin to Trainspotting, and so many of the shots seem composed with exactly that ambition in mind. Even some of the incidental music sounds like that in Trainspotting. About the only connective tissue it doesn’t have is a killer soundtrack. The movie definitely has its flaws, but I found it to be absolutely absorbing for the most part, and I came away from it with an even greater appreciation for McAvoy.
This review was originally published on 2/13/2016 at https://thatsnotcurrentblog.wordpress.com