Opens Fri., May 30 at Varsity. Rated R. 97 minutes.
Remember the great cocaine breakdown sequence from GoodFellas, in which the central character endures one long day of panic attacks and paranoia? Ray Liotta’s gangster collapses in his own excess, and looks appalling during the spiral: red-eyed, sweaty, his skin a whiter shade of pale.
Absent the bravura check-out-my-tour-de-force style of Martin Scorsese, that sequence is recalled during the entirety of Filth. In this bad-behavior wallow, James McAvoy looks as bad as Liotta during his crash, and the movie itself aims for unrelenting misery. Which it largely achieves. Based on the 1998 novel by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, Filth cruises through the seedier crannies of Edinburgh at the hip of a corrupt, multiply addicted detective named Bruce Robertson. Any echo in that moniker of the noble Scots hero Robert the Bruce is surely meant to index the degraded world that Welsh and director/screenwriter Jon S. Baird so gleefully paint.
Bruce is alcoholic, drug-addicted, and sexually indiscriminate. He thinks little of sabotaging his colleagues for the sake of an upcoming promotion, or of making lewd phone calls to the lonely wife (Shirley Henderson) of his meek, trusting friend (Eddie Marsan). An unsolved murder case provides a (very flimsy) spine for this character study, but the police-procedural aspect drifts into the background, as though Bruce’s easily distracted, coke-addled personality were in charge of the movie as well as the investigation. A fine cast of supporting actors—including Kate Dickie (Red Road ), Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, and Imogen Poots—nearly makes this tawdry carousel bearable. Watch closely for the cameo by David Soul, just to add to the surreal atmosphere.
Having served up all this stomach-churning detail (a contributor to IMDb helpfully notes that McAvoy can regurgitate at will, thus the vomit on display in the movie is authentic), Filth begins to reveal its very sentimental backstory. And here’s where it gets indefensible: All this grinding in the audience’s face has been in the service of a very conventional narrative device. Kudos to native Scotsman McAvoy, who also suffers an existential crisis in X-Men: Days of Future Past. This is the kind of role actors take to prove themselves more than a pretty face, and—beyond his skills with bodily functions—McAvoy’s convincing in the part. That the movie leaves him exposed on the tightrope isn’t his fault.