Irvine Welsh, the immeasurably talented author of the 1998 book on which Filth, the story of corrupt Scott copper Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) who is rapidly lose his already tenuous hold on reality, is based, has quite accurately described this much-delayed movie adaptation as “an ultra-dark, head-fucking film.”
It is indisputably dark, and as trippy as Alice’s demented trip into wonderland (with the added addition of stupendously large amounts of cocaine and some deliciously twisted sexual pursuits) and truth be told it does often leave you wondering where the blurred line between reality and debauched fantasy has finally come to rest.
But it is nevertheless a rewarding viewing experience, as stark and blackly comic a portrayal of one man’s losing battle with the demons that beset him as you’re likely to see anywhere.
And in amongst all the surreal visions of farmyard animal heads that appear at random on the heads of Robertson’s colleagues and dispassionately engaged lovers, freaking out the ambitious police detective every time the pop up, the violence, tapeworm motifs and emotional disengagement, there is at heart the story of a scared little boy masquerading as an overweeningly confident dissociative man who learnt long ago to paper over his fear and regret with reckless bull-in-a-china-shop arrogance and a great deal of alcohol.
It is a hitherto successful crash or crash through approach that seen him go far in life, supposedly successfully married with one child (although we later see that is more wishful thinking than current Hallmark Cards reality), heading up the investigation of the murder of a Japanese student and the lead candidate for a promotion that’s in the offing.
It’s all looks like the perfect life, lived large and with charming attitude, the very picture of a man in total charge of an envy-inducing present and going with gusto after a wholly promising future, one he is determined to secure via fair means or foul (and neither his friends nor his colleagues are safe from his willingness to do what it takes to bring it about).
He may not sound like the sort of person you want to spend any time with at all, but as played by James McAvoy, who invests Robertson with as much pathos and vulnerability as swaggering over-confidence, the detective on the makes emerges as fully rounded, intermittently likeable person, albeit one with significant chinks in his immaculately maintained exterior.
The screenplay by director Jon S. Baird, is also a triumph not letting the more surreal elements of the script, such as Jim Broadbent’s ever more loopy psychiatrist Dr Rossi who has an inordinate fascination with tapeworms (which harkens back to the book’s use of this distasteful creature as Robertson’s conscience) overshadow the lead character’s descent into drug and alcohol-fuelled madness which had its genesis in a traumatic event from his childhood.
It is this delicate balancing act of humanity and outlandish wackiness, held in check by both Baird’s assured direction and McAvoy’s consummate skill in bring this perversely multi-layered character to life, that gives the movie its tone and ensures it doesn’t lose itself in the more absurd elements of the story.
What emerges from all the Alice in Wonderful craziness is the tragedy of a broken man, unwilling or unable to deal with his broken past, who mistakenly assumes that bravado, cocaine and enough alcohol to float a barge on will be enough to ease the naked pain that assails him daily whether he acknowledges it or not.
It is a flawed approach that sees his colleagues abandon him one by one as the demons he has fought so hard to keep under wraps come gaily skipping out, exposing his runaway delusional state, with no regard for the artfully constructed life he has built to keep them contained.
And when they do fully emerge, Robertson, who bats away the genuine friendship of his mate Bladesey (Eddie Marsan) and the concern of rival and colleague Amanda Drummond (Imogen Poots) in fits of dissociative pique, doesn’t handle their public outing well at all, any last vestiges of psychic wholeness crumbling in spectacular fashion into a polluted soup of cocaine, whiskey and his overwhelming misery (from which he somehow manages to extract brief glimpses of his former cheekiness).
Filth manages to escape becoming a dark, existential nightmare by mixing in as much humour, dark as it is, as a story this brutally realistic can reasonably take, and ensuring that the characters who populate are as believable as it gritty but extraordinary setting will allow.
It is not an easy watch by any means but it is an oddly rewarding one, a brave and imaginative dissection of what happens when you think your past is way behind you, only to find it ripping the bowels from your present and leaving little of anything worthwhile or salvageable in its wake.