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Ebiri on Filth: An Incoherent Movie Electrified by James McAvoy

A hallucinatory, fragmented, bizarre adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s hallucinatory, fragmented, bizarre novel, Filth is a fascinating puzzle of a movie – one without much of a solution, it seems. It involves the depraved machinations and inner torment of a Scots police detective, played by James McAvoy, as he seeks a promotion, plots against his colleagues, attempts to solve a murder case, tries to win back his family, and makes his way through mountains of drugs and sex. How much of what he’s seeing and experiencing is real, the movie leaves up to us. There’s no hand-holding here. Watching the movie is at once electrifying and maddening.

The electricity comes mostly from McAvoy himself, finally living up to the promise of parts like those he played in Atonement and The Last King of Scotland. Here’s a movie star whom we’ve all suspected could do a lot more. He’s brought a refreshing snottiness to young Charles Xavier in the last couple of X-Men films, but his stardom has snuck up on many of us; where was the movie we could point to and say, “Ah, but have you seen him in this?” Well, it’s here. It’s Filth, and the fact that movie is totally fucking incoherent somehow makes McAvoy’s achievement that much greater. He keeps us riveted by a character we can’t understand, inside a movie that’s rapidly slipping from our grasp. Filth asks him to be alternately conniving, confident, deranged, lost, desperate, with little connection between scenes — so we often don’t have a narrative progression to ease us into his next moment. But McAvoy’s energy keeps us watching; it screams off the screen. The very unpredictability of the character becomes part of the attraction.

To say that McAvoy is the main reason to see Filth isn’t entirely fair to the rest of the cast, which includes such fine actors as Eddie Marsan, as our hero’s strangely pliable friend; Jim Broadbent, as his psychiatrist; and Imogen Poots and Jamie Bell, as a couple of his office rivals. They’re all doing solid work — even if I did have to Wikipedia them afterwards to make sure I was clear on just who exactly they were playing.

Movies about addiction and madness are tricky. Keep the narrative too stable and all you’ve got is a tired, preachy trifle. Go too far into the character’s mind and you’ve got incoherence, which can be a different sort of cliché. Abel Ferrara’s version of Bad Lieutenant has lots of problems, but it largely works for viewers because Ferrara nails the mixture of clarity and illusion; he doesn’t let you lose yourself too much. Filth isn’t afraid to completely throw us off the deep end, perhaps in honor of the freewheeling source material. But I’ll admit, for all the energy of his prose, I often find myself having to reread Welsh’s pages before I can figure out what’s happening in his books. With Filth the film, I often wished I could hit “rewind” and rewatch a scene, just to try to clarify what was happening. But after a certain point, I was too swept up in the roller-coaster ride McAvoy was giving us. I’m not sure I can recommend the movie, but this actor and this performance are something to behold.

Photo: Neil Davidson/Magnolia Pictures