Filth Fails as Black Comedy Despite McAvoy's Superb Peformance

FILTH  (2014)
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Lionsgate, 97 minutes, NR (crude humor, rough language, degradation)
* *

Don't believe the box hype!
Of all movie genres, black comedy is the hardest to get right. Err on the first half of the equation and the film is too dark for the humor to ring true; err on the second half and it's hard to muster the requisite seriousness. The Scottish film Filth flunks part one–its bleakness is so dark that even occasional sharp humor cuts like a murder knife.

The film is set in Edinburgh, but not the parts that tourists see. The film opens with the fatal gang stomping of a Japanese man in an underground station. There is a witness. Cut to the local precinct, which is staffed by a band of detectives themselves just one step—make it a half step—removed from thuggery. The station is ineptly commanded by Detective Chief Inspector Gus Bain (John Sessions), a bumbling fool who longs to write film screenplays and is just riding out his days until retirement by delegating everything. Luckily for Bain, his precinct is filled with Detective Sergeants (DS) angling for promotion to Detective Inspector  (DI). Enter our anti-hero, DS Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy). "Robbie" is easily the best cop of the lot–when he's in the zone, which was years ago. Bain hands Robbie the murder case—just about as bad a decision as he could make, as Roberston embodies the filth of the movie's title. He has, to use an American expression, lost it—his wife, his kid, a younger brother, and his sanity. He is seriously bipolar, a boozer, a cokehead, a sex addict, and an amoral lowlife. The only thing that keeps him going is his intellect, which he directs toward "the games," a perverted plan to undermine his half dozen rivals for the DI position by feigning friendship and bringing them down to his level. Along the way he also seeks to humiliate an influential and wealthy Mason lodge brother, Clifford Blades (Eddie Marsan), and his wife, Bunty (Shirley Henderson). And this is just the tip of the iceberg of Robbie's secret problems.

Filth has some genuinely funny moments and searing lines. Alas, it's only McAvoy's superb performance that keeps the film from sinking under its namesake slime. McAvoy is a gifted actor—the sort who commands us to watch even when he's disgusting. But, in the end, it just boils down to whether even McAvoy can carry us past endless scenes of vomiting, male chauvinism, self-destruction, hooliganism, objectification, and generalized inhumanity. Nope–the film is too black to carry the comedy. We get a zany cameo from James Broadbent as Dr. Rossi, Robbie's drug-dispensing doctor, but his cartoony interludes feel as if someone just switched the channel to a random Dr. Who episode. These radical shifts of tone serve mainly to highlight Robbie's misanthropy to the point where we don't believe the occasional glimmers of decency we're supposed to see. Enter Mary (Joanne Froggart, Anna from Downton Abbey) as a bereaved widow who thinks Robbie might be a kind man. She's sweet, but her screen time is just another unconvincing tonal shift.

I watched this film to the end mostly because I was mesmerized by just how good McAvoy was in such a bad film. I truly admired his performance, though it wasn't in the service of much. Looking for laughs or redeeming social value? Don't look here.
 -- Rob Weir

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