Like all of the very worst dark comedies, Jon S. Baird’s insipid and self-satisfied Filth isn’t content to merely tap into viewers’ most odious desires. It also insist that it’s revealing them. Adapted (and softened) from the 1998 Irvine Welsh novel of the same name, Filth combines the sleaze of Bad Lieutenant with the gauche giddiness of Dom Hemingway, eventually metastasizing into a desperate movie about a desperate man. Exhausting every trick in the book to illustrate the depravity of its protagonist, the film grows as out of control as its washed up anti-hero.
In Edinburgher Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, James McAvoy has somehow found a character even more smug and noxious than the one he played in Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted. It’s clear from the beginning that Bruce is as sick as they come, though most of the film concerns itself with diagnosing the particulars of his condition. Bent on winning a major promotion, even—or especially—if it entails destroying his cartoonishly innocent colleagues (Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, and an assortment of less memorable faces round out the force), Bruce is a natural disaster with a badge. He sexually harasses underage subjects, engages in mutually destructive phone sex with his best friend’s wife (Shirley Henderson), and participates in a number of lesser perversions that might be harmlessly kinky if they weren’t so obviously intended to numb his self-hatred. Indeed, the demons in Bruce’s closet are rattling the door, and you can rest assured that whatever is haunting him will slowly (but loudly and inanely) come to light.
It’s Bruce, and not his vices, to which the title is referring—a descriptor that the character thinks is a high compliment and a double-entendre that the movie thinks is a grand epiphany. Before resolving itself as a woefully disingenuous depiction of mental illness, Filth is essentially a portrait of a man at war with his own self-image. Conceived by Welsh as a stand-in for the struggles of the Scottish working class, Bruce is reduced here to little more than a wounded soul who has been irreparably distanced from his own decency.
Bruce figures that falling to rock bottom would be easier than climbing his way out of the hole, and the film’s staunch insistence that everyone wants to be good means that the most daunting obstacles Bruce encounters are opportunities to care about other people. It’s only in these moments that Filth seduces anything recognizably human from this hyper-affected orgy of on-screen graphics, hazy interludes, and cutaway gags, as Bruce’s relationship with his simpering hedgehog of a best mate (a reliably brilliant Eddie Marsan) does what it can to hold the film together. Unfortunately, Baird shares Bruce’s apathy for the character’s self-improvement. Filth tries hard to be edgy, but the transparency of that intention is enough to divorce the viewer from Bruce’s POV, and watching the film feels less like entering his head than it does like paying for the agony of being his therapist.
“Likability” is one of the scourges of modern cinema, and filmmakers should be encouraged to tell stories about pathetic characters. But reveling in the opportunity is hardly enough to justify the attempt. By the time Filth’s nightmare of a third act climaxes with an appropriately shrill and soulless cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” the instructive lyrics aren’t just a cry for help, they’re also an admission of failure: “I wish I was special.” The feeling is mutual.