Skip to main content

There’s something seriously wrong with me.

Filth
(2013)

(SPOILERS) The unqualified success of Trainspotting foisted upon Irvin Welsh a certain cinematic cachet, but not of the positive variety. Any subsequent attempts to adapt his novels appeared to confirm that Danny Boyle’s sophomore zeitgeist-seizing movie was the exception that proved the rule. Welsh’s work was just too difficult, unruly and controversy baiting to translate to the silver screen with any degree of coherence and fetid lustre intact. That is, until Filth came along. Generally regarded as one of his least filmable novels (which is saying something), it arrived to generally favourable reviews if not massive audience response. It’s telling, though, that the glue holding the picture together is not any sense of nascent auteurism on the part of writer/director John S Baird. Rather it’s the central performance of James McAvoy, who lends his loathsome misanthrope sufficient charm and tortured soul that we’re willing to stick with him.


The great achievement of Boyle and screenplay writer John Hodge with Trainspotting was not only in making the unpalatable palatable (and doing so without diminishing the impact of its least viewer-friendly elements) but in foresting a coherent narrative on a fragmented and episodic novel. Trainspotting remains highly episodic as a movie, but Boyle fuses the disparate elements together through a combination of tone, music and (all-importantly) narration. Whether consciously or otherwise, Baird repeats at least two of these devices. In Clint Mansell he has a master-musician attending to the soundtrack, and as a result the tonal shifts (and the main theme for Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson – McAvoy) are aurally attuned. So too, Robertson’s conversational voice over has the casually informative tone that invites acceptance of whatever horrendous misdeed he is about to perpetrate next (it should probably have been a clue that there is only one other voice over in the movie but, while I was halfway there, I didn’t put it all together). Where Baird slips up is that he doesn’t quite nail the tone, at least until it’s too late.


Trainspotting’s apparently random incidents fused together thanks to Renton’s overriding perspective, and his reflection included pathos amid the caustic recollections. Baird is unable to bridge his empathic gap with sufficient sureness. Perhaps part of this is down to the autobiographical nature of Welsh’s heroin novel; Filth feels like an invention, transferring the addict protagonist to a classic genre setting (the crime novel) and giving him some classic demons to battle (his family has left him, he has a dark secret in his past). It might be the intention to gleefully smear faeces over detective conventions, and in part this works well, but we’ve seen bad guy cops at work many times before, often extremely humorously. As a result any shock value is essentially limited. What Baird needs desperately is for Filth to flow, and unfortunately McAvoy’s narrative confidentiality can’t paper over the cracks in his director’s technique. What’s frustrating about Filth is that it’s so close to achieving what it aims for, but in the end the distance it fails to cover is crucial.


Bruce introduces us to a motley assortment of fellow officers, all of whom may have an interest in an inspector position up for grabs; the increasingly ubiquitous Imogen Poots as a career minded female officer whom Robertson sees as shagging her way to the top (it couldn’t just be that she’s good at her job; she’s a woman), the almost as ever-present Jamie Bell (something of a protégée with a coke habit and a small winky), metro-sexual Emun Elliott (whose sexuality Bruce casts aspersions on at every opportunity), Gary Lewis’ dense old duffer and Brian McCardle’s fists-first fascist whose wife (Kate Dickie) Bruce is seeing. Bruce introduces each with a relentlessly malignant summary and inveigles us in his mission to undermine each in turn, so as to increase his chances of securing promotion.


Then there's the main object of Bruce’s dyspeptic bullying; poor Clifford Blades (Eddie Marsan, so meek and mild it makes his performance in The World’s End looks aggressive). Bruce, in spite or perhaps because of repeatedly emphasised erectile dysfunction, is attending to any woman who crosses his path by foul means or fouler. So he harasses Clifford’s wife Bunty with a series of prank calls posing as Frank Sidebottom (the scenes of Bruce watching Frank’s TV show are an instance where Baird achieves a kind of nightmarish grandeur, although nothing here comes close to the trippy visuals in Boyle’s Welsh adaptation). 


Also notable from the Clifford subplot (and those with Bruce’s boss, played by John Sessions) is Filth’s disenchanted depiction of freemasonry. I’m trying to think of films that have had much to say on the subject (perhaps no one wants to offend, as you never know when you might get on the wrong side of a financier?) The best I can come up with is The Man Who Would Be King, which takes a most definitely benign view of the organisation. Here, the epithet “brother” is intended to suggest nothing of the sort and, as many conceive of those who join a lodge, Bruce is only a member so he can get ahead. The cruelties Bruce inflicts on Clifford are so irredeemable, it’s only his final admission that the the latter is Bruce’s only friend that goes some way to diffuse his behaviour.


During all of this we are witness to his increasing affliction with substance abuse, as Bruce spirals out of the control he is attempting to grasp. Baird never quite gets a handle on how to integrate this. We see Bruce’s hallucinations of those he knows in totemic animal form, but rendered as run-of-the-mill prosthetic appliances. The tapeworm gnawing away at his insides is visualised so clumsily it would have been best to excise it all together; Jim Broadbent’s doctor becomes his nagging inner voice in hectoring and ill-judged dream sequences. Then there’s David Soul’s singing taxi driver; a nice idea, but the execution just makes it seem random. Baird clearly has more than enough ideas, but probably needed a collaborator to help him refine them.


The director also has abundant energy, but he is too scattershot too frequently. Ironically, it is only during the last 20 minutes that he becomes more focused. Ironically, as this section is much straighter than the preceding episodes. The narratively rather tidy and far-fetched solution to the missing murder witness is revealed as Bruce himself; he has been indulging in a spot of transvestism, assuming the identity of the wife who has left him. It was in this state of apparel that he came across the gang attacking a Japanese student in the opening scene. This has the over-the-top quality of Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill, but the ever-reliable McAvoy manages to sell it (although changing the race of the murder victim, and the perpetrator, from the novel appears to be a calculated decision to make Bruce slightly less odious; even not having read it, I was expecting to find that Bruce  - or his Lady Macbeth wife – had some yet to be revealed conspiratorial involvement in perpetrating the deed). Bruce facing up to his inner torment requires Baird to veer away from attention grabbing vignettes. As a result some of the wittiest scenes in the movie emerge; Bell’s now promoted inspector telling the shrivelled Bruce how it is, and the final magnificent bad-taste twist as the grieving Mary (Joanne Froggatt) calls round just as he is about to hang himself. His convivial “Same rules apply” is just the sureness of tone Baird needed throughout.


Despite the issues with the telling, what works works very well. Bruce’s vile bile is frequently very funny, and his asides or looks to camera are just the kind of approach that works for this larger-than-life kind of material. The dry self-mockery that informs the opening address (“It is great being Scottish. We’re such a uniquely successful race”), followed by Bruce stealing a child’s balloon, sets the scene more assuredly than what follows. Even if elements contribute nothing, they are often amusing; Session’s boss is obsessed with selling a Hollywood screenplay, and we see him reading a copy of The Writer’s Guide at one point. No doubt Baird consulted it to stress some of the less daring aspects of Filth. For all that it wants to be provocative, it actually isn’t very. Sessions also gets one of the best lines (“Not only is there a latent Nazi racist homophobe but a bloody Jessie Boy after the inspector’s job”).  Apparently Sessions walked out of the premier, as it wasn’t his cup of tea. Presumably he did that actor’s thing of only reading his scenes before taking the part.


Filth’s a worthy try, then. McAvoy is superb (and the supporting players are all note-perfect). He delivers every self-destructive, vindictive and comic episode with gusto, well aware that roles like this don’t come along every day. He’s better than the movie, unfortunately. One only has to look at the advertising campaign to see how uncertain everyone seems to have been about what this was (Bruce, dressed in policeman’s uniform, riding variously a pig and a whisky bottle). It looks desperate, frankly, and entirely clueless over how to get unconvinced potential audiences to attend. The film itself is considerably better than that, but may be a lesson in the need to wring changes further than Baird was prepared to; perhaps if he had he still wouldn’t have made the next Trainspotting but a picture trying less hard to satisfy too many parties. One thing about it, it’s an even less Chrissmassy Christmas movie than Bad Santa.


***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.