Movie Reviews
3:36 pm
Fri May 30, 2014

James McAvoy As A Creep? In 'Filth,' The Anti-Typecasting Works

Originally published on Sat May 31, 2014 5:34 am

Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) swaggers down the street at the start of Filth swiping balloons from children, ogling their mothers, flipping off foreigners and smirking as he ticks down a list of what makes Scotland a place where he feels he can be cock-of-the-walk.

"This nation brought the world television, the steam engine, golf, whiskey, penicillin and, of course, the deep-fried Mars bar," he snorts. "We're such a uniquely successful race."

He's the kind of soulless, racist, drug-and-alcohol-addled operator you might call the police to protect you from. Except he is the police — a homicide detective who's angling for a promotion to detective inspector, convinced that this will bring his wife back, even as he's whoring around with the wives of his colleagues.

As he angles for that promotion, of course, Robertson's got little time for actual police business. There's so much undercutting of his competition to do, whether he's getting a teetotaler drunk, or hiring someone to make a fastidious colleague seem gay, or embarrassing a guy who feels sexually inadequate by suggesting, at an office party, a full-frontal variation on that photocopy-your-butt prank.

McAvoy, looking puffy, eyes perpetually glazed, plays this creep with enough foul-mouthed sleaze to be thoroughly off-putting. I had a hard time finding dialogue to quote that wouldn't have to be bleeped in the radio version of this piece, and language is, in many senses, the least of the film's transgressions. Filth is based on a novel by Irvine Welsh — who also wrote the profane, drug-fueled epic Trainspotting — and though this story's been sweetened a bit for the screen, it sometimes feels equally unsavory.

Other times, it just seems as if writer/director Jon S. Baird is playing around with moviemaking jokes — say, by casting Jamie Bell and Gary Lewis (who played dancer Billy Elliott and his dad, respectively, 13 years ago) as two of the cops Robertson is hell-bent on sabotaging; or by staging some Terry Gilliam-style hallucinations featuring animal masks and a pill-pushing, Christmas-caroling Jim Broadbent.

As intriguing as it is to watch McAvoy getting uncharacteristically down and dirty — and he's almost alarmingly good at it — the film gets emotionally squishy as it heads into its final reel, with perhaps a few more behavior-explaining revelations than it really needs. But credit the filmmakers with descending persuasively into the swampy squalor of a diseased mind. If you're in the mood to go there with them, Filth offers an indecently bracing wallow.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The actor James McAvoy has mostly played heroes and romantic leads - think "X-Men" and "Atonement." He might not seem like someone you'd cast as a creep in a movie called "Filth." But critic Bob Mondello says this is casting against type that works.

BOB MONDELLO: He swaggers down the street, swiping balloons from children, ogling their mothers, flipping off foreigners, smirking as he ticks down a list of what makes Scotland a place where he feels he can be cock-of-the-walk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FILTH)

JAMES MCAVOY: (As Bruce) This nation brought the world television, the steam engine, golf, whiskey, penicillin, and of course the deep-fried Mars bar. It is great being Scottish. We're such a uniquely successful race.

MONDELLO: He's the kind of soulless operator you might call the police protect you from, except he is the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FILTH)

MCAVOY: (As Bruce) Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, soon-to-be Detective Inspector Bruce Robertson. You just have to be the best, and I usually am.

MONDELLO: If by the best, he means he's the most racist or the biggest coquette or the least principled, he's got that right. As he angles for that promotion to detective inspector, Robertson's got little time for actual police business. There's so much undercutting of his competition to do, whether he's getting a teetotaller drunk or hiring someone to make a fastidious colleague seem gay or embarrassing a guy who feels sexually inadequate by suggesting at an office party a variation on that photocopier butt prank.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FILTH)

MCAVOY: (As Bruce) What we'd do is we would photocopy an image of our wedding tackle, then be up to the lassies to match the male member with the corresponding owner.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What a load of bollocks, man.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Let's do it.

MONDELLO: James McAvoy, looking puffy, eyes perpetually glazed, plays Robertson with enough foul-mouthed sleaze to be thoroughly off-putting. I had a hard time finding dialogue of his that wouldn't have to be bleeped on the radio.

"Filth" is based on a novel by Irvine Welsh, who also wrote the profane, drug-fueled epic "Trainspotting." And this story sometimes feels equally unsavory. Other times, it just seems as if writer/director Jon S. Baird is playing around with movie-making jokes, say by casting the actors who played dancer Billy Elliot and his dad as cops or by staging some Terry-Gilliam-style hallucinations, featuring animal masks and a pill-pushing, Christmas-caroling Jim Broadbent.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FILTH)

JIM BROADBENT: (As Dr. Rossi, singing) This promotion's made him crack. Isn't it ironic? Bigger pay, bigger job, bigger pills, Bruce.

MONDELLO: As intriguing as it is to watch McAvoy getting uncharacteristically down and dirty - and he's almost alarmingly good at it - the film gets emotionally squishy as it heads into its final real with perhaps a few more behavior-explaining revelations that it really needs. But credit the filmmakers with descending persuasively into the swampy squalor of a diseased mind. If you're in the mood to go there with them, "Filth" offers a pretty bracing wallow. I'm Bob Mondello.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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