Every character in Filth is a broadly drawn cartoon with absolutely no sympathetic qualities, something that the film at least seems to recognize by giving each of them hallucinatory cartoon animal counterparts (a trope that I quite enjoyed, extending from Robertson’s self-image of himself as a’pig’) that appear in an animated credits sequence. This wouldn’t matter if any of them were interesting, but they’re not (despite a game cast including Jamie Bell and Imogen Poots), being too sketchily drawn out to make much of an impression. Robertson is the exception, but mainly because of the self-loathing, rage and delight McAvoy brings to the role. But the character’s portrayal is essentially flawed.
On the one hand, Robertson’s considerably toned down from his literary counterpart, and does nothing so bad compared to a myriad of other corrupt-cop movies that have had their protagonists do worse. On the other hand, Robertson is such a loathsome, racist, misogynist, manipulative asshole that the film’s attempts to lend his downward spiral pathos come off as misguided failure at best, and waffling apologia for a terrible man at worst. Robertson’s a bad person, but the conventionality of his badness (and that of the film) makes it all seem tired and stale. We’ve seen Robertson many times before—the straight, white, middle-aged bad man with a tragic backstory. He’s not complicated, he’s a caricature of pop psychology, mental illness and ‘hilariously’ inappropriate masculine rage and political incorrectness. We’ve seen this done far better in the very works that Baird imitates. Even the source material goes full-tilt into ridiculous territory, turning Robertson into an ugly and slobbish version of Patrick Bateman with a police badge, his vile (and much more violent) impulses narrated and editorialized by a sentient tapeworm in his gut. But the film’s decision to hold back and attempt to make Robertson somewhat sympathetic by playing up childhood trauma and his own self-hatred only backfire, and the replacement of the sentient tapeworm with an imaginary therapist comes off as a tepid change (despite an effectively hammy and menacing turn by Jim Broadbent).
If one can stomach the crude politics, Filth passes muster as somewhat entertaining pastiche, given additional spice by the raging force of presence of its star. McAvoy gives a lively, unbridled performance as Robertson, almost selling the man’s inward anguish. It’s an admirable performance, lending nuance to a character that has none, and empathy to a character that deserves none. No matter how entertaining and impressive McAvoy’s performance, though, the film that surrounds him feels like it’s trying too hard, too late to ride on the success of Boyle and Ritchie’s adrenalization of British cinema (or feebly resuscitate the same). It feels like a relic instead of an homage, a quality that lends it a curious air of melancholy longing for a bygone era of British film-making. Filth is a nihilistic cartoon that wants to be subversive, but feels quaint in its regressive wallowing. It’s about two decades too late, with none of the originality of its forebears.
Filth opens at The Rio on Friday, May 30th.