Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) Talks Jon S. Baird’s Filth

What is the point of a vaguely “extreme” British crime and corrupt cops import if not to inspire the awe...

What is the point of a vaguely “extreme” British crime and corrupt cops import if not to inspire the awe and excitement of impressionable young minds?

Jon S. Baird’s Filth doesn’t seem to be overwhelmingly influenced by Guy Ritchie’s promising early films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, though it does share a producer with them in Trudie Styler and more than a handful of superficial similarities that the comparison deserves attention. Filth seems to exist somewhere between Ritchie’s world of Cockney thugs and their frequent expulsions of bodily fluids and the (at the time) quite groundbreaking Trainspotting, with which Filth shares Irvine Welsh, who wrote the novels both are based upon.

Instead of committing fully to a worldview bleak or satirical enough to properly stand alongside any of the above-mentioned films, Filth mostly feels as though it takes place around the fringes of an Edgar Wright film, before Simon Pegg and Nick Frost appear to comment on or call attention to the cinematically indebted proceedings. (It doesn’t help matters that Filth employs Wright players Eddie Marsan and Jim Broadbent, neither playing roles entirely dissimilar from their characters in The World’s End or Hot Fuzz.)

If it seems difficult to talk about Filth without just listing other films it is sort of similar to, that is probably because the film itself never quite outpaces its barrage of cinematic references, and this is to say nothing of the repeated nods to Kubrick, both in the form of a 2001: A Space Odyssey poster and subsequent derivative set piece within a dream sequence, or a prominently-placed Beethoven cue that recalls…well, you get the idea. The difference between Baird’s treatment of James McAvoy or what Ritchie or Wright do in their own films is that McAvoy’s cop, Bruce Robertson, doesn’t seem quite as aware that he is in an British crime film as he needs to be.

When I was younger and discovering “international cinema” (i.e. VHS tapes that said Miramax on them), an unfamiliar setting and something identifiably beyond what American films could offer was enough to send shiver down my spine, and would inspire me to run to the book store for the newly republished tie-in edition of the original novel and also to the music store for the soundtrack. In this regard, Filth is quite likely a huge success, in that it no doubt possesses the capacity to expose impressionable young minds to Irvine Welsh or even better, “Silver Lady” by David Soul or Billy Ocean’s “Love Really Hurts Without You,” whose perfectly timed cut-to-credits cue represents the film’s most earned Kubrick comparison.

It’s the kind of music cue that recontextualizes a familiar song or makes something unfamiliar immediately relevant and meaningful to a new listener. It’s incredible and by far the most memorable part of the film. If there is any justice in the world, Scottish and British lads who watched Filth eager for some violence and nudity went out and caused a spike in sales for Billy Ocean’s back catalogue. “Love Really Hurts Without You” is, in my opinion, a catchier and more layered song than his more well-known (and also outstanding) “Caribbean Queen” and comes to life during a brief and entertaining animated end-credits sequence in a way that music in films can only aspire. Like “Paint it Black” at the end of Full Metal Jacket or “Where Is My Mind?” in Fight Club, the song belongs to the film now.

Not much else in Filth reaches such euphoric heights but that may be because a surplus of ingenuity is needed to make dense prose like Welsh’s translate effortlessly to the screen. McAvoy continues to be a very interesting actor who isn’t ever really in interesting films, though his dedication to everything Filth throws at him, from depraved sexual fantasies to some half-defined sense of guilt and anguish that supposedly justifies his current sorry state, is admirable. He performs everything with equal intensity and disbelief, as though Bruce Robertson can’t quite believe the shite he’s going through either. It’s too bad that the film never really puts him through the ringer; aside from a beating here or there and some problems with his commanding officers, Robertson doesn’t do much beside smirk and be a right bloody bastard. It actually seems impossible to believe, but if memory serves, there isn’t even a moment in Filth where he smashes a pint glass over the face of some offending bugger in a pub. It’s the little touches like that which came to define the “in your bloody face” British exports of the ’80s and ’90s that opened up worlds of discovery to impressionable young Americans who thought lawmen in the cinema had to include human superheroes like Bruce Willis and not frail, disturbed drug-addicted maniacs.

Filth is at its best when it feels like a throwback to these simpler times, and at its most frustrating when it fails to go beyond what these films have offered for nearly two decades. Had the film been released in 1997, posters for it would likely have adorned the walls of dorm rooms on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2014, it exists as a remembrance of a not-too-distant past where blokes are blokes and their system doesn’t work for you. Best case scenario for any film like this is to fulfill its purpose of sending admirers to the Alan Clarke section, functioning as a portal into the richer, more challenging stuff to which it so gleefully doffs its cap. Hopefully it will be fondly remembered by many as their first exposure to the hard stuff.

Alex Ross Perry was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania in 1984. He attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and worked at Kim’s Video in Manhattan. He is the director of the films Impolex, The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth and Golden Exits and the writer of Disney’s Christopher Robin. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.