97 min., rated R.
Implied by what it says on the tin, "Filth" could use a bath and is in need of taming, but where would the fun be in that? An adaptation of the 1998 novel by cult writer Irvine Welsh, whose first title was turned into Danny Boyle's 1996 tour-de-force "Trainspotting," this ink-black comedy is as relentlessly depraved, anarchic, politically incorrect and misanthropic as its anti-hero, fearlessly boasting a heavy-duty R-rating and letting James McAvoy rip like a feral animal in an explosively go-for-broke performance. Bitingly scribed and aggressively paced by writer-director Jon S. Baird, "Filth" breaks down all the safe barriers and pushes limits in good taste, furiously reveling in a buzz of retrograde behavior and then probing the twisted psyche as a seriously cracked pop-psychology drama. Brace yourself.
An alcoholic, sex fiend and all-around addict, Bruce Robinson (James McAvoy) is bigoted, vulgar, morally bankrupt, self-destructive and pugnacious. Of course, he must be a corrupt cop with too many vices and the drive to get the inspector promotion at work, no matter the price. As the Edinburgh, Scotland police force is busy solving a case—the mugging and murder of a Japanese exchange student—Bruce is willing to get all of his rival co-workers wrapped around his middle finger, including a cocaine-abusing rookie (Jamie Bell); his meek best friend (Eddie Marsan), whose drunken wife (Shirley Henderson) is the victim of Bruce's obscene phone calls; and the ass-kissing token female (Imogen Poots). But he is unwilling to admit to everyone, including himself, about the reality of his relationship with his wife, Carole (a breathy, va-va-voomy Shauna Macdonald). Through it all, Bruce has carelessly stopped taking his prescribed Lithium, accelerating the hallucinatory side effects. His double life—in more ways than one—is about to catch up with him.
With a sharp, Chuck Palahniuk-ish tone, jackrabbit-fast pacing, and a lead character as detestable as any Bret Easton Ellis creation, "Filth" is not the cuddliest of comedies. If the viewer knows what he or she is getting into, it won't be as repellent or off-putting. Make no mistake, it's sensationalistic of the highest order, but gleefully so. Like Bruce, the film doesn't give a flying hoot what you think of it. A brash, bilious, Machiavellian degenerate who angrily masturbates and Xeroxes his genitals at a Christmas work party to hop in the sack with the minxy secretary, Bruce simply isn't a likable figure, nor is he meant to be, at least not at first. There might be a little good in him, like when he attempts to save a dying man on the street and keeps running into his grieving wife (Joanne Froggatt) and son, but that's where it begins and ends. When the film does get around to revealing the sad root of Bruce's problems, it does feel a bit more like a gimmick than a natural plot development. And yet, it's more unflinching and heightened instead of feeling too cheap to feel exploitative.
Putting every fiber of his being into springing Bruce Robinson to life, McAvoy gets to go hog-wild, biting off heads and leaving everyone else for dead. With an extremely thick, indecipherable Scots accent and louche disposition, the Scottish actor tests and pushes himself more than ever in a caffeinated, ferocious lionheart performance that refuses to be ignored. Since he's such a magnetic actor, even when he's sweating and grinning like a leering voyeur, McAvoy makes the viewer care just a tiny bit about the brash bastard once we realize Bruce is having a mental breakdown and reeling from the loss of his family. His performance nearly brings to mind Jude Law in the recent "Dom Hemingway." Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan, and Shirley Henderson, among others, all play minor characters relative to Bruce, but they add color and a little dimension, but mostly color. Jim Broadbent is also an incredibly loopy presence as an imaginary shrink. Alas, it seems like no one knows what to do with Imogen Poots; she's a talented actress, but here, she is underutilized as police woman Amanda, aside from one moderately juicy confrontation with Bruce.
Director Jon S. Baird has the skill and energy to pull off a manic, exhilarating and disturbingly psychotropic fever dream. He lights the fantasies with Mrs. Robinson like a neo-noir and throws in a random, albeit glorious, musical number of David Soul's "Silver Lady" with David Soul himself. There's also a plethora of drug-addled, phantasmagoric imagery that's never as unwatchable as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." His use of music, from song tracks of Culture Beat's "Mr. Vain" and Nena's "99 Luftballoons," terrifically augments a specific atmosphere of debauchery and unhinged trauma. There's a power to the finale, being sublimely scored to composer Clint Mansell and Coco Summer's cover of Radiohead's "Creep," and the very last shot (with a last-minute breaking of the fourth wall) is the punchiest in recent memory. First and foremost, though, this is McAvoy's vehicle and he drives it all the way. Next to his multilayered performance in 2013's Danny Boyle-helmed "Trance," his electrifying and unchecked work here as Bruce is guaranteed to blow you away. Following a cruel, homophobic, misogynistic and mentally ill prick is not going to be everyone's idea of fun, or even hellish fun. You know it's wrong and ugly, but the film knows it, too. "Filth" is ballsy, fierce, frenetic, gonzo, lunatic, and wildly perverse—and those are all meant as compliments. In short, it's a dark, diseased blast.
Grade: B +