Filth Review: Hot Scuzz
When James McAvoy stares at himself naked in the mirror (and I think most of us would if we looked like James McAvoy), I have a sneaking suspicion that he scowls. He’s such a damned pretty human being but if you look at his films, he only really seems to get off on playing total bastards. The endangered subconscious of Simon from Trance. The easily corrupted Dr. Garrigan from The Last King of Scotland. Even Professor Charles Xavier seems kind of like a dickbag when James McAvoy gets a hold of him. McAvoy’s boyish good looks and playful sleaziness make these scoundrels much more charismatic than they by all rights deserve, and his performance in Filth may be his assholish pièce de résistance.
Detective Sergeant Bruce Robinson is a real piece of work. Constantly drugged out of his mind, coercing suspects into sexual favors, sexist, homophobic, abusive and haunted. Writer/director Jon S. Baird based his screenplay a novel by Irvine Welsh – there’s a Trainspotting reference barely a minute into the movie – and lets the author’s sublime energy infect the production. Bruce is a modern day Richard III, declaring his deceitful intentions, convinced that they are justified, and pushing forward from one sick manipulation to the next like a bulldozer strapped to the mirror universe Starship Enterprise. The shock of seeing just how low Bruce is willing to go to achieve his petty ends swishes around with the guilty joy of seeing him get away with it.
Bruce wants a promotion, damn it, and everyone at the office is in his way. He’ll fuck their wives, out their homosexuality, pump them full of cocaine and sow any other kind of crazy discord he can to get what he wants. There’s a deeper motive in there somewhere – something about his wife that he’s unwilling to admit even to himself – but James McAvoy uses Bruce’s humanity as an excuse to act completely inhuman, and for the audience the real pleasure is going straight down to Hell with him. An antihero with nothing to lose who acts like there’s no tomorrow is a special effect that no Transformers movie could ever hope to replicate: the diseased storyline and twisted propulsion of Filth make it one of the most exciting movies in years, even as the plot eventually sinks into explanations that feel more contrived than necessary.
Filth isn’t afraid to both revel and condemn Bruce for his behavior, frequently at the same time, and it’s a messy balance that Jon S. Baird navigates like a drunken superstar. The film plays like a cinematic version of the infamous fully loaded John Barrymore stage performances: unmistakably special with unmistakable danger. There’s a genuine sense that someone’s going to get hurt who doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment, but McAvoy keeps our attention focused entirely on him. We pity his victims but get to exalt in the ravings of their torturer. You’ll feel dirty as you exit the theater, but like most things that make you feel dirty, you’ll feel just fine mid-coitus.