The Bleak Midwinter: Filth Review

My second review for the Bleak Midwinter, following Black Christmas, is for the Scottish film Filth, starring James McAvoy. Below is a review I typed up 3 years ago on message board thedarktower.org, but after watching it again, while I still love it, I currently don’t have anything new to say. The first impression of the film hit me incredibly hard, and I had to process a lot to write up my thoughts. Incredibly dark and tragic, it was a film I had to include in the Bleak Midwinter.

***

Ever since seeing the initial red-band trailer, this film had my attention, for several reasons. For one thing, it seemed to be aiming for an excess of crudeness and disgust that wasn’t done purely for comedic or stupid reasons. For another, it was a chance to see James McAvoy in a role that was very different to the usual upper class pretty boy English characters he played – oh don’t get me wrong, he usually played them well, but the role of Bruce Robertson seemed a far cry from everything he’d done before. And lastly, the fact that it was based on a book by Irvine Welsh, who wrote Trainspotting, suggested that, as long as it was done right, there might be more to it than what the trailers were showing. But, having just seen this film, even I was surprised by how much I loved it.

The basic plot of the film involves Scottish cop Bruce Robertson as he does his best to get a promotion ahead of his workmates, in the (hardly believable) hope of reconciling with his separated wife. One way he plans to do this is by being the first to solve a local murder, but that’s just one method – he also plans, at any and every opportunity, to deceive, humiliate and generally ruin any possible chance of each and every one of his fellow colleagues have of getting promoted before him. Worse, he loves to do the same with his friends who aren’t remotely in his way as well, just for the sheer thrill of it. The number of truly despicable and cruel acts he pulls on the people around him genuinely make him a true cunt.

And that’s the beauty of this film: at first, Robertson’s tricks, devious schemes and even juvenile pranks are funny to watch in a very dark way, but as the film goes on, and the distance between us and the characters, particularly Robertson himself, is slowly decreased, Robertson starts to become a lot more despicable, and you come close to hating him many, many times…but what makes the film really tragic is that Robertson is as much of a victim as the people he torments, perhaps moreso. It slowly becomes clearer and clearer that his “games” aren’t just extreme ways of aiding his ambition, but the products of a very disturbed and damaged mind, as he continually suffers vivid hallucinations, depression and ever increasing desperation in his attempts to gain a promotion by any means necessary, no matter whose lives are ruined in the process.

The real tragedy of Robertson’s character – and what makes him so compelling – is that he’s not a complete monster. There are moments of genuine humanity to his character, moments where he does actions that aren’t for his own pure benefit and that he genuinely cares about. This includes trying to save a random stranger in the street from a heart attack while everyone else watches, but my personal favourite moment is simply putting a flower back in the funeral arrangement it had fallen out of. These moments remind us that Robertson isn’t completely beyond redemption, and he knows it and becomes completely shamed by his actions…before running away from it and committing even more despicable acts against anyone and everyone he knows.

There are other characters in the film – my favourite (other than Robertson), Bladesey, a naive and surprisingly close friend that Robertson perhaps torments more than anyone, is one you always feel sorry for – but it’s definitely McAvoy’s absolutely amazing performance as Robertson that drives the film. His journey from arrogant arsehole to a man rapidly losing his grip on both reality and his sanity, a performance that challenges us to feel either total loathing or genuine sympathy, or perhaps simply pity, is powerful to watch.

Filth really amazed me. I went in expecting a black comedy with moments of dark drama. Instead, what I watched was a mixture of comedy, tragedy, and even psychological horror that sent me on a whirlwind of emotions – disgust, sympathy, despair, horror and, towards the end especially, total fucking heartbreak. At times, it’s not the easiest film to watch, but that’s exactly why it’s one of my favourite films of the year, if not the favourite. I look forward to watching it again and catching up on the original novel as soon as possible and giving it the detailed analysis that it deserves.

***

There is one more thing I will add about the film. It has one of the most incredibly powerful and heartbreaking endings I’ve ever seen. It’s built up really well, and so many things make it. How well it’s shot, an excellent cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ playing on the soundtrack, and of course, one final gut-punch the film delivers. But it’s McAvoy’s performance that really stands out about it. It’s an ending that never fails to break my heart, and made Filth into one of my favourite films, as difficult as it is to watch.

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