Addiction can be used as a way to mask a deeper pain. The addict can disappear into a drug-induced haze, and find a brief reprieve before real life comes crashing back in, and there’s a need for a bigger fix. Filth follows suit, but instead of using drugs to mask pain, it uses drugs to mask a shallow story and weak jokes. Writer-director Jon S. Baird has plenty of tricks: breaking the fourth wall, throwing up graphics, frenetic cinematography, etc. He also has a great cast willing to give it their all, but nothing can compensate for a tedious picture that thinks it’s more aggressive and exciting than it actually is. Only near the very end does its constant posturing prove to have a semblance of a point.
Detective Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is a whoring, duplicitous, high-functioning drug addict who’s angling for a promotion. If he manages to solve a high-profile murder case, the promotion shouldn’t be a problem, but he’s too caught up in his extra-circular activities—screwing a colleague’s wife, messing with his co-workers, prank calling his friend’s wife, and other assorted nonsense ranging from the innocuous like masturbating in the restroom to the truly horrid like coercing oral sex from an underage girl (the age of consent is 18, but she’s 16, so to Baird, this is just another transgression that doesn’t need to be referenced or mentioned ever again). But beneath all of Bruce’s wretched deeds, there’s lots of guilt and it’s causing him to slowly lose his sanity.
There’s no real freedom or energy to Bruce’s actions because the script is so calculated. The edginess is a dull blade because it’s relying on clumsily executed gimmicks to balance the raunchy with the “heartfelt”. Baird is ham-fisted when it comes to trying to give Bruce “redemptive” values, and this apology further diminishes any offensive the film may intend. Whenever we see a flash of Bruce’s depressing past, the film may as well put up a big sign saying “NOT A TOTAL SHIT”. The movie can’t own what’s its trying to peddle, and what it’s trying to peddle was already cheap.
I have no problem with dark, raunchy comedy. When it’s well done, I love it. But everything in Filth rings hollow. It wears a veneer of cool, but comes off like third-rate Guy Ritchie, and I say that as someone who doesn’t think Guy Ritchie is a mind-blowing filmmaker. If you’re going to rely almost entirely on style, it better be bright and shiny enough to be entertaining, and Baird doesn’t have the skill to pull it off. Instead, he only offers jarring tonal shifts, false tenderness, and a total waste of a talented cast that also includes Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan, Imogen Poots, and Jim Broadbent. Everyone is giving it their all, and it’s almost all for naught.
Near the end of the picture, Filth starts to make a bit of sense. If everything that came before hadn’t been an utter chore, the story would be pretty rewarding. The film starts to seize on the notion of differentiating between what’s distasteful and what’s truly ugly. For example, we see how Bruce’s coke addiction is unsavory but his superior officer’s homophobia is horrid. However, the film is so weak that the theme never coalesces into something powerful. Neither does the twist that turns what felt like empty posturing into something that may have been intentional. It’s the equivalent of stumbling to the ground, striking your face into the pavement, looking up with a bloody nose, and saying, “I meant to do that!”
I was surprised I almost started to feel something other than boredom as Filth came to a close. It wasn’t for the maudlin bullshit masquerading as depth, but a wistfulness for what could have been. Baird never manages to make his film as bold or brash as it needs to be, and instead of something genuinely filthy and thoughtful, Filth is just a mess.