You know, I don’t think people give James McAvoy enough credit. Sure he’s gotten a lot of critical success through the X-Men movies, but take a look through his filmography and you’ll see some serious acting chops. By far his most extreme character to date is the unhinged Edinburgh detective Bruce Robertson in this adaptation of the 1998 novel of the same name. Does Filth showcase McAvoy’s true acting prowess as well as the depths he’s willing to go, or is it a huge misstep for an actor in the prime of his career trying to prove himself by taking on the role of an unlikable prick? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to keep reading!
The movie begins with our main character’s wife (Carole) who’s addressing the audience, and talking about how hot she is and how much better their lives will be once her husband gets a promotion. We then cut to a Japanese kid getting murdered by a bunch of British street punks. They get chased off by Carole who then proceeds to just look at him before looking at the camera.
After that, we cut to James McAvoy (Bruce) being a glorious bastard while walking down the street. He’s a cop who’s trying to get a promotion by solving the case of the dead Japanese kid we saw earlier, and he spends the next ten minutes running down his competition for the job. The movie does a great job here of showing us the world through Bruce’s eyes. Not only do we see what he thinks of each person in creative little cutaways, but for the majority of the film, the cinematography is claustrophobic which puts us uncomfortably close to people we REALLY don’t want to be that close to.
Because of the exaggerated nature of the characters and cinematography, along with McAvoy’s balls out insane performance, it’s clear that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator so take anything I say here with a grain of salt. What you need to know is that Bruce is fucked up in many different ways and will do anything (including destroying his fellow officers) in order to get that promotion. The case quite frankly is secondary to him when compared to sabotaging his competition. After the meeting where they discuss the case (and Bruce just sits there trying will everyone to burst into flames with his mind), him and his partner Ray go out on patrol. Ray is a rookie and has a bad drug habit, so Bruce’s plan is to peer pressure him into doing fucked up shit and nurturing his drug habit.
They bust some guy who’s having sex with an underage girl, and while Ray is roughing him up, Bruce coaxes a blowjob from her. Yeah, he’s that kind of scumbag. Anyway, they don’t end up arresting the guy because he’s willing to pay them off after they tell him about some guy in jail known as The Beast.
Another officer on his list is Dougie, who he’s been tormenting with for a while now because we cut to him fucking the guy’s wife.
This brings up a problem I have with the movie. You take one look at this mother fucker or have one conversation with him, and you would know better than to associate with him on any level that doesn’t involve pepper spray, a taser, or four cops with nightsticks. He’s disheveled, greasy, always on edge, and just a fucking bastard. Of course you can be all of these things and still get someone to sleep with you, but the woman is genuinely shocked when the guy berates her after sex. It’s hard to believe that he can turn on the charm for long enough to convince anybody that he’s anything less than a complete disaster on legs. It takes away from the edge that Bruce has because we end up wondering if the world around him is as exaggerated as he is.
His plan is clearly working because the next scene has Dougie drowning his sorrows in a bar with Bruce where he’s airing his concerns about his wife. Bruce plays innocent and tries to console his fellow officer with all the sincerity of an EA apology. The topic eventually turns to Bruce’s significant other, as well as his daughter whom we didn’t know existed until now. He seems reluctant to talk about either of them, so this might be a bit of foreshadowing. Come to think of it, we haven’t seen much of the wife since the movie began. Anyway, having felt like he’s done enough damage for one day, Bruce is on his way home when a man collapses in the street. The man’s wife is begging someone for help, so Bruce runs over and gives him some CPR. While doing so, he has visions of a young boy in a similar situation, which might be a clue as to why Bruce is the shit head he is right now. After the ambulance comes and takes away the dead body, Bruce goes to see his doctor who’s played by that one British dude who has to be in every movie made over there.
Aside from the presence of Jim Broadbent, the scene is pretty uninteresting. The doctor isn’t specific about what Bruce is there for, so we don’t get any further insight into the nature of Bruce’s insanity. We go from there to a scene of James McAvoy jerking off to porn (something I could have gone my whole life without seeing) and after finishing watches a program called “The Frank Sidebottom Fantastic Shed Show.”
While watching that nightmare fuel disguised as British comedy, Bruce calls up some woman and starts harassing her over the phone (using the pseudonym Frank). In case you figured this was just how he got his jollies off, it’s actually yet another elaborate plan of Bruce’s to increase his chances of promotion. See, the woman in question is the wife of a “friend” of his at a lodge he goes to. Not only that, but the “friend” in question (Clifford) is very rich and donates a lot to the local police, so solving this crime will be a big boon for Bruce. He just need a patsy to take the fall, and of course needs to milk this for all it’s worth beforehand.
We then cut to Bruce with a folder containing info on the gang that committed the murder in the beginning of the film. It seems odd that he would just have this information lying around, but whatever. He claims that an informant gave him that info, but I tend not to trust what this guy says. While discussing this new info with the chief, we also learn that he’s going to take a trip to Germany soon (without his wife and daughter) and that he’s gonna have to brief the female detective (Amanda) before he leaves to take care of things while he’s gone. Naturally, he’s got a problem with this and proceeds to burn off steam by going to the female member of the gang’s place of business, and threatening her.
The woman seems to recognize him despite Bruce not recognizing her (either foreshadowing or standard course for our chemically enhanced hero) and ends up giving him some info about one of her associates after Bruce threatens to rape her. Having a lead to go on, he exits the store and IMMEDIATELY runs into the widow of the man who he couldn’t save the other day. They have an awkward talk and seem to hit it off (not really in a romantic way) before Bruce loses his nerve and bolts. We then cut to him at home taking his pills and hallucinating things. We get an amazing fucking sequence of Bruce inside his own head where he’s talking to Jim Broadbent who looks like an even crazier Larry Fine.
The guy seems to be the manifestation of all the things wrong with Bruce and encourages him to trust no one and take lots of pills. Broadbent is absolutely magnificent as the crazy ass doctor with his own little ticks and quirks that puts Bruce (as well as the audience) on edge. The scene unfortunately ends and we cut to Bruce sometime later jerking off to a newspaper in the police station’s bathroom. Wait, what?
Yeah, bit a sudden transition. Honestly, his over the top antics are starting to get a bit wearisome. We get it, he’s a shit bag. After finishing, he writes on the wall that one of the other officers (Peter) sucks dick. He then goes out into the middle of the station and starts shouting how unfunny it is that someone would do something like that. See, now THAT’S the kind of scumbag I like to see! Jerking off in a bathroom? Lame. Starting rumors that another officer is gay (which seems to be an issue in this place) while ALSO defending them? Now that’s just shitty! He spends the next ten minutes of the movie trying to make sure the rumor spreads as wide as possible and even hires a gay man to pretend to know Peter. This part of the film also has a Christmas Party, but it really doesn’t have much bearing on the rest of the movie. His big dickhead move here is to convince all the men to photocopy their dicks and post them on the wall. Naturally, Bruce uses the photocopier to enlarge his own dick so it looks like he has the biggest one.
After that, we get to Bruce’s vacation which he’s taking with Clifford (the guy whose wife he’s harassing) and it’s even worse than the Christmas Party. See, the Christmas Party was short enough that it didn’t break the flow of the film too much. This however goes on way too long and accomplishes NOTHING. He fucks with Clifford by giving him some drugs, but the vacation in never brought up again. The only thing it’s there for is to justify the next scene which is where we find out that the police chief gave the case to Amanda who will be leading the investigation from now on. Bruce storms out of the Chief’s office and runs into the widow (still no name) who’s there to thank him again for trying to save her husband, and to introduce her young son to the man who tried (and failed) to save daddy. At this point we can assume that his family is either non-existent or long since gone, so having the widow come around every once in a while gives us hope that he can become a better man. The problem though is that that is all she is in this movie and we never learn anything about her. We never get a sense of why she would want to be around this guy other than as a symbol of the life Bruce could have if he got his shit together. Bruce is in no position to do that however, and ends up spending the night with his partner Ray talking shit and keeping him down.
We get another scene with Bruce’s “wife” who’s in some sort of sex club and is letting us know that the only way he’ll have her is if he gets that promotion. I doubt this is true, and is yet another manifestation of Bruce’s psychosis. He BELIVES that he’ll get his family back if he gets the promotion because he has to believe that SOMETHING will bring them back. He goes home and watches some home video of his family while crying his eyes out, and then proceeds to call Clifford’s wife again to harass her. This time, she stays on the line and gets into it, but Bruce’s heart just isn’t in it this time.
His downward spiral continues when he gets another visit from evil Broadbent who berates him for even thinking he could get the promotion, and tells him to TAKE MORE PILLS!!
He THEN goes back to Dougie’s wife and fucks the shit out of her.
The repetition here I guess is supposed to further solidify his inability to change and that he’ll keep going through the motions of being a complete scumbag until something else intervenes to stop him. We get another scene with his wife who describes their open marriage, which leads me to think that one of the reasons his wife left him was infidelity, and this is just his insane mind trying to justify his cheating. After her aside, we cut to Bruce waking up in a car and proceeding to do his morning routine (puke, drink, snort, smoke, comb). At the office he gets some good news (Dougie’s wife has left him) but also some bad news. The chief is fed up with Bruce and is threatening to not give him the promotion if he doesn’t show some results on either the dead Japanese kid, or the pervert calling Clifford’s wife. Backed into a corner, Bruce decides to frame someone for the pervert calls. Wait; didn’t he have a lead on the gang who killed the kid? Anyway, Bruce’s plan is to get Clifford drunk, and make an incriminating recording of him to show to the guy’s wife and the police. Fair enough, but I have two questions. First of all, Bruce doesn’t change his voice when he’s calling the wife on the phone, so how did she not recognize him when he came over AND how would a confession from her husband be convincing if he doesn’t have the same voice as the pervert? Second, the actual incriminating recording is odd. Remember that program Bruce was watching earlier, “The Frank Sidebottom Fantastic Shed Show”? Well, his master plan is to convince Clifford to sing along with the show’s opening (Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Frank Sidebottom!) which I guess is enough to convince people that he’s the pervert who calls himself Frank. You hear the recording later, and Clifford says the line, but you’d think it wouldn’t be all the incriminating considering that Frank Sidebottom is a character on TV and that that line is said every episode.
After playing this for the wife (while having sex with her) his guilt seems to get the better of him because he winds up back with Scary Broadbent who finally tells us who that little boy was he got flashbacks of when he was trying to save that man from earlier. It turns out that he had a younger brother who he accidently got killed when they were playing one day.
He wakes up from this delusion back in the police station bathroom, only this time in the women’s room where he gets caught crying by Amanda. The following scene is one of the best in the movie because it’s the first time this character has to deal with someone who isn’t an idiot or an asshole. It’s the first REAL conversation the guy has, and it’s an argument with Amanda. She tries to get him to admit his problems, and he eventually cracks under the pressure. He breaks down in front of her, but still doesn’t let her help him. He’s riddled with guilt and shame to the point that he doesn’t feel he deserves any help, and just runs away. At this point, he’s become an enraged animal backed into a corner and starts taking out his frustrations on whoever he can find. First, he goes after Clifford and berates his for being a pervert, and feels even worse when he finds out that Clifford sees him as his best friend. The shit isn’t done coming home to roost because he runs into Dougie’s wife who informs him that Dougie tried to kill himself. After a scene where Dougie’s wife chokes him out and fucks him, we cut to Bruce at home where we get the twist that this movie has been building up to this entire time.
It turns out that the all the scenes of Bruce’s wife that we saw were actually of him dressing up as her. This means that he was the one who witnessed the murder of the Japanese boy and explains why the girl in the group responsible recognized him. That night, he goes out on the streets as Carole, and SOMEHOW gets found by the gang who take him to a warehouse to kill him. They tie him to a chair and one of them beats the shit out of him while the others go to set the place on fire. Bruce gets a rough ass whooping, but he eventually comes out on top when he throws the fucker out a window.
Afterwards, the police find him and he ends up getting demoted while his partner (Ray) gets the promotion. Sure, they had no problem with him drinking and doing drugs, but god forbid he dress up as a woman. Sometime after the incident, he’s out shopping when he sees Carole in line at one of the checkouts. All they do is look at each other, but the emotional depth they’re able to show in just the way their eyes meet speaks volumes as to what life must have been like with Bruce at his worst.
She leaves as soon as possible with their daughter and her boyfriend, while Bruce just stands back, knowing he has no right to get any closer. Maybe there’s hope for him yet if he’s able to face the horrors he’s committed and accept the consequences. Oddly enough, the widow shows up immediately after and Bruce tries to start something with her. She’s not ready to trust him just yet (he also looks like his face was attacked with a can opener) and leaves things open, but doesn’t give a definitive yes. Bruce was hoping for the yes, and it just puts him even further into depression. The next scene, we see him dressing into his police uniform which is intercut with scenes of Clifford receiving a package from Bruce. It’s clear that between the video apology that Clifford got from Bruce, and the way Bruce is gathering stuff from around the house while wearing his best uniform, that he’s planning to kill himself.
Right before he jumps off his chair and hangs himself, he can see the widow and her son approach the door. He seems genuinely shocked by this, but they leave after a few rings of the doorbell. He gives one last demented look at the camera and the chair breaks underneath him. We then cut immediately to the ending credits which is this weird as hell animated sequence that portrays Bruce as a pig going about the usual Disney anthropomorphic animal shtick, while also sneakily inserting more adult stuff like snorting coke (or as it’s shown in the cartoon, milk).
This is one of those movies that’s almost held together completely by a single element. McAvoy’s acting as Bruce is fucking amazing and he’s able to go to great lengths to show the insanity this guy is dealing with. The rest of the movie is good, but has some serious flaws that hold it back from being a great film. The story meanders around too much, and the pacing suffers for it at points. There’s a bit too much repetition when it comes to Bruce’s shitty behavior, with some scenes ending up being showcases for how far McAvoy is willing to go rather than integral pieces of the plot. Everyone else does a fine job, but Jim Broadbent is the only one who’s able to hold his own against McAvoy’s scene stealing insanity. There are a few dramatic points that hit, but they’re not enough to ground the movie in any sort of reality which somewhat undercuts the shock value of McAvoy’s insanity. I mean, it seems like everyone else on the force is an alcoholic so Bruce isn’t that far away from where the rest of them could end up. The movie also seems to have an issue with homosexuality and transvestites. Sure, it’s based on a book from 1998, which might explain some of that (as well as the fact that I know nothing about Scotland’s attitudes towards those subjects), but it’s still unpleasant to sit through. Bruce’s plan to ruin one his fellow officers by spreading gay rumors works a bit too well and the twist at the end with him being a transvestite is played up way too much as another level of hell that Bruce has sunk to. I might be looking too much into it, but it did bother me. Overall, I really enjoyed this film for the masterful performance that McAvoy gives, as well as the way the filmmakers was able to portray his insanity through the camerawork and the delusional episodes. That said, the story itself is less than enthralling, and it can be a bit tedious throughout most of the second act. I’m one of those people who can enjoy a movie on almost nothing more than the insane performance the lead actor can give (hell, that’s pretty much why I love Nicolas Cage so much). If you can ignore some faults here and there in the story and just focus on the main character’s antics, then you’ll probably like this movie too.