Bill O’Byrne’s Bargain Bin Blues: Filth

Filth: $$$$

  • Directed and written by Jon S Baird.
  • Starring James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan.

PHIL vs BILL In this black comedy, James McAvoy plays a booze-sodden, drug-addicted Edinburgh cop scheming for promotion while investigating an Asian youth’s murder. After a promising start, Filth fatally crosses the line from being wickedly funny to tediously unhinged, culminating in a twist that’s more preposterous than the hallucinogenic mayhem preceding it. Not even a cast that includes Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, Imogen Poots, Shirley Henderson and Eddie Marsan can make their largely loathsome characters appealing, unless you’ve a bent for the grotesquely perverse.

PHIL vs BILL
In this black comedy, James McAvoy plays a booze-sodden, drug-addicted Edinburgh cop scheming for promotion while investigating an Asian youth’s murder. After a promising start, Filth fatally crosses the line from being wickedly funny to tediously unhinged, culminating in a twist that’s more preposterous than the hallucinogenic mayhem preceding it. Not even a cast that includes Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, Imogen Poots, Shirley Henderson and Eddie Marsan can make their largely loathsome characters appealing, unless you’ve a bent for the grotesquely perverse. — Phil Wakefield.

Here, by way of illustration of the nature of James McAvoy’s character, is what he does during the course of the movie Filth to his only real friend.

(Warning: There are a couple of plot reveals, but nothing anywhere near as twisty as what lurks within Filth.)

So: As Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson of the Edinburgh police, McAvoy’s called in to investigate obscene phone calls being made to Bunty, the wife of his friend Clifford, a harmless, kind-hearted, chartered accountant he met through their Masonic Lodge.

It’s not hard for Robertson to crack the case as he’s the one making the calls. But he investigates it anyway, and gets Bunty to play along with the obscene calls so “the hunter becomes the hunted”.

The payoff for him is that she joins in with some enthusiasm, which gives Robertson time to masturbate.

Later, he seduces Bunty on her lounge floor and during this, convinces her, by another bit of bastardry involving a tape recording, that it is Clifford whose making the calls in the first place. Clifford ends up in jail and McAvoy pays him a visit for gratuitous violent bullying.

Now, that may seem a reasonably unlikely sequence of events to get some laughs. That it does, right up till about the bonking Bunty bit, is the funny, and disturbing nature of Filth. They’re short laughs, more out of shock than humour, but fun is to be had.

The reason for this is McAvoy’s brilliant character of Robertson, a broken but malevolent genius, out to get promotion amongst his peers at all costs. Everything is fair game. Everything is in play.

In one gambit he uses his position as the police union representative to publicly and passionately decry homophobic graffiti in the police dunnies about a very unpublic homosexual colleague. Did I mention Robertson wrote the graffiti? Did I mention he is a malevolent genius?

Did I mention this is disturbingly funny? At least for three quarters when the laughs dry up as the pace of Robertson’s unravelling speeds up. As does the pace of the revelations.

James McAvoy as Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson does some community outreach on the streets of Edinburgh.

James McAvoy as Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson does some community outreach on the streets of Edinburgh.

It’s a movie worth seeing twice. Once drunk, once sober. The order doesn’t matter which, though I suggest as written. It’s not a stoner flick. There are brief, disturbing hallucinations which are briefly disturbing. It’s full of whisky, cocaine and maybe less lithium carbonate than Robertson needs despite his prescription.

His hallucinations include his dead younger brother. Others are his doctor, Jim Broadbent, who becomes a very scary, internal counsellor, getting wilder and more hallucinatory as he zeroes in on Robertson’s darker demons.

McAvoy plays his part brilliantly, sometimes just glancing into the camera when he’s proud of some particularly clever bastardry, but he is also prey to moments of humanity when there’s just a chance that he might pull out of the German co-pilot power dive he’s on.

Apropos of nothing preceding, there’s also a David Soul reference thing going on. (For the younger viewers, Soul was most famous for being Hutch in the cop show Starsky and Hutch, but he also had a ridiculously successful pop career.)

He makes a surprising cameo here with his song Silver Lady which is apparently original author Irvine Welsh’s favourite karaoke song. I’m trusting the Internet here. But the song features in a particularly unusual sequence which I will append in the click-bait extras link at the bottom.

Clifford (Eddie Marsan) and Bunty (Shirley Henderson). Sometimes all a marriage needs is a bent copper spiralling out of control to add some spice to it. Det Sgt Bruce Robertson will now oblige.

Some of the reviews for Filth go from a dire D- on The Onion’s AV Club, to one star on The Daily Mail, up to four out of five with The Independent. The reason the low raters get it wrong here is because it is a man who has been driven mad by grief, and whose actions have robbed him of hope of redemption. He knows it too. “The same rules apply” is an expression used through it all. It’s a game to him and everyone is fair game, him included.

His bid for promotion is a straw to grasp at if anything is to make sense. That it really doesn’t matter really doesn’t matter to a man without any meaning in his life. And yet … and yet …

There are almighty twists, and moments of brilliance. (In a seven-second street scene the movie skewers all the traditional glories of Scotland in a glimpse of obese, ginger slobs in a way no New Zealand filmmaker would ever dare self-pisstake.)

Luckily, McAvoy has enough charisma to make his monstrous Robertson believable, and all the other characters are spot on. Shirley Henderson as Bunty is fantastic as always, here she’s all big hair and rampant estrogen.

The whole cast is great, portraying a variety of bent, mean, or clueless cops. If the real Edinburgh police force was like this, it would make for very interesting Christmas functions. Even more so than the one shown here.

Filth ended with me on the edge of my seat, which will sound less cliched when the cartoon credits run and breathe returns to your body.

This is a film you think about a long time after you’ve put it in its case wrong side up and thrown it onto the floor next to the old whisky bottles and pizza boxes. Or placed it carefully back into the recessed rimu shelving unit with the green velvet inlay. Depending on the life choices you have made.

A special Filth bonus for everyone over the age of 40: Name this singer!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xx–1rBJFRo
Bill O’Byrne is a failed practitioner in the art of making movies. He has an imaginary Masters degree in being able to sit goggle-eyed and stare at TVs for hours on end. He is previously the official astrologer for the New Zealand Army and once made a complete cock of himself in front of Douglas Adams in Palmerston North. He has assorted nonsense here: kiwispacepatrol.wordpress.com.
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