James McAvoy plays a detective on the edge in the film of Irivine Welsh's "Filth." Credit: Magnolia Pictures
'Filth' Director: Jon S. Baird Stars: James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
Released in the wake of “Pulp Fiction” mania, the brash, snide 1996 film of Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” was never a landmark. But like the Tarantino monster, it inspired more than its share of dire copycats. A wave of funny-dark comedies about the U.K.’s (and sometimes America’s) most debauched crashed into art house theaters. “Filth” feels like one of those, even if it shouldn’t: It’s based on another Welsh novel and has waited two decades for the fecund odor of “Trainspotting” to disappear.
It even tries to be different. For one thing, it’s not exactly empathetic with its protagonist. Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is a remorseless bad detective in Edinburgh, who enjoys propositioning sex from 16 year olds, bullying his connected friend (Eddie Marsan), drugging himself into a psychedelic dreamscape and other things seen in every movie about lawless law enforcers ever made. This movie has been made before, in fact many, many times before, and the fact that it was made in 2014 doesn’t make it any more fresh.
What does it make it slightly almost-fresh — like a cheese that’s only gone somewhat, salvageably moldy — is the glee with which it’s been made. Director Jon S. Baird may channel every filmmaker who’s ever used whiplash montages, loud music cues and cheeky narration. But he seems to genuinely be having as much fun as his monstrous anti-hero. This isn’t a dark comedy; it’s a comedy that happens to be about dark things. It’s filmmaking with a big, stupid grin on its face. Not that all of its joys are transgressive in nature: One of funnier bits finds Robertson messing with his colleagues over who gets a promotion.
The good times, of course, can’t last, because they never do. Sure enough, Robertson has a sad secret in his past, just waiting to come out, and once it does, the fun does indeed end. The fact that this isn’t “Trainspotting 2” — though Welsh has written that novel — does wind up serving to show “Trainspotting”’s many secret strengths. That film genuinely liked its characters, or some of them. The violence, the few times it actually occurred, was real and uncontainable, not cartoonish. And Danny Boyle’s keyed-up direction wasn’t just about acceleration and cool images, but never forgot that its characters felt most at home in true grime, and felt most alien when cleaned-up and zombified. If someone else had made “Trainspotting,” it would have probably looked like “Filth,” and the world would be poorer for it.