Corrupt cop's crack at redemption

Filth (R). Director: Jon S. Baird. Starring: James McAvoy, Shauna Macdonald, Joanne Froggatt. 97 minutes

The Breaking Bad episode titled 'The Fly' offers a perfectly timed insight into the residual humanity of a man on the way to becoming a monster. Chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was intitially prompted to enter the drug trade as a way to raise enough quick cash to support his family, following a bleak prognosis for lung cancer. Since then, greed, pride and circumstance have led him well down the path of corruption. In this famous episode an emotionally, mentally and morally strained Walter laments that he has missed 'the perfect moment' where he might have achieved his financial aims without straying so seemingly far from the reach of redemption.

Director Jon S. Baird's adaptation of Scottish author Irvine Welsh's 1998 novel Filth features an antihero who is similarly well beyond his own 'perfect moment'. Police detective Bruce Robertson (McAvoy) is corrupt, violent, misogynistic, and a drug addict, who for the most part lacks respect or empathy for those around him. He is not entirely inhuman, and the film, a rambunctious and graphic black comedy that is more or less a straight-up character study, spends much frenetic energy trying to map the ghastly inner wounds that bleed greenly into his outer corruption. But he is unerringly cruel, as destructive to those around him as he is to himself.

Baird has his work cut out for him. To be fair, Filth's 97-minute running time doesn't allow him the luxury of the extended series arcs of Breaking Bad and its ilk, to build sympathy for his unpalatable antihero. All he can do is hurl the messy pieces against his cinematic canvas and hope they stick in such a way that by the time the credits roll they have formed a cogent, if ugly portrait. That being said, just how do you build sympathy for a character whose near-to-first on-screen act is to sexually assault and cruelly denigrate the underaged girlfriend of a murder suspect? The answer is: slowly, and not all that convincingly.

In addition to investigating the racially motivated beating-death of a Japanese student, Robertson is trying to manipulate his way into a promotion, by impishly playing his colleagues off against each other, in often depraved fashion. The pressure of his Machiavellian games is getting to him though, and a few cracks are starting to appear in his brutal bravado. Infrequently, he sees animal faces (his own is a monstrous pig face) in place of the human faces around him. Such hallucinations are in part a symptom of his heavy drug use, although they also reflect how far he has strayed from the path of human decency, led astray by his mangled moral compass. Now Bruce Robertson is surrounded by monsters, although they dwell most viciously inside his own broken mind.

There is hope for Bruce — there must be, otherwise why would we bother wading so long in his filth? Early in the film he spontaneously, and seemingly uncharacteristically, rushes to the aid of a dying man, and is visibly grieved when he fails to revive him. Subsequently he bonds with the man's adult daughter, Mary (Froggatt) and her young son. There comes a genuinely touching subplot, where the admiration and gratitude in Mary's wide eyes (Bruce was the only person who helped her father amid a street packed with gawkers) seems to reflect to Bruce an image of what he might be, perhaps even what he might want to be, deep down, despite his twisted, libertine ways.

Further hints of Bruce's psychosis lie in the dreamlike images of a stunning blonde woman (Macdonald), presumably Bruce's conspicuously absent wife Carole, that appear at intervals to goad Bruce with promises of sexual favours if he can fulfill his manly duty by obtaining the promotion. These fanciful daydreams intersect precisely with Bruce's eventual, near total unravelling, as the extent of his mental break from reality becomes shockingly apparent. All of which goes some way to explain, but never to excuse Bruce's earlier atrocities (he is clearly mentally ill), depicted unblinkingly by Baird and by McAvoy's bravura performance.

Does Bruce Robertson attain the level of the sympathetic monster epitomised so sublimely by Breaking Bad's Walter White? Not even close. That said, when the promise of redemption does turn its innocent blue-eyed gaze his way in the person of Mary, you may find yourself begging him to gaze unflinchingly back, and accept its profound, liberating promise. But the denial of redemption may yet be Bruce's, and Filth's, ultimate act of cruelty.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Jon S. Baird, James McAvoy, Joanne Froggatt, Irvine Welsh, Filth



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