McAvoy, cast deserve better than a wallow in unpleasant ‘Filth’

Remember the great cocaine breakdown sequence from “GoodFellas,” where the central character endures one long day of panic attacks and paranoia? Ray Liotta’s gangster collapses in his own excess, and he looks appalling during the spiral: red-eyed, sweaty, his skin a whiter shade of pale.

Absent the bravura check-out-my-tour-de-force style of Martin Scorsese, that sequence is recalled during the entirety of “Filth.” In this bad-behavior wallow, James McAvoy looks as bad as Liotta during his crash, and the movie itself aims for unrelenting misery. Which it largely achieves.

Based on a book by “Trainspotting” author Irvine Welsh, “Filth” cruises through the seedier crannies of Edinburgh at the hip of a corrupt, multiply-addicted detective named Bruce Robertson. Any echo in that moniker of the noble Scots hero Robert the Bruce is surely meant to index the degraded world that Welsh and director-screenwriter Jon S. Baird so gleefully paint.

Bruce is alcoholic, drug-addicted and sexually indiscriminate. He thinks little of sabotaging his colleagues for the sake of an upcoming promotion or of making lewd phone calls to the lonely wife (Shirley Henderson) of his meek, trusting friend (Eddie Marsan).

There is an unsolved murder case providing a (very flimsy) spine for this character study, but the police-procedural aspect drifts into the background, as though Bruce’s easily-distracted, coke-addled personality were in charge of the movie as well as the investigation.

A fine cast of supporting actors — including Kate Dickie (“Red Road”), Jamie Bell and Imogen Poots — nearly makes this tawdry carousel bearable. Watch closely for the cameo by David Soul, just to add to the surreal atmosphere.

Having served up all this stomach-churning detail (a contributor to the Internet Movie Database helpfully notes that James McAvoy can regurgitate at will, thus the vomit on display in the movie is authentic), “Filth” begins to reveal its very sentimental backstory. And here’s where it gets indefensible: All of this grinding in the audience’s face has been in the service of a very conventional narrative device.

Kudos to native Scotsman McAvoy, who also suffers an existential crisis in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” This is the kind of role actors take to prove themselves more than a pretty face, and — beyond his skills with bodily functions — McAvoy’s convincing in the part. That the movie leaves him exposed on the tightrope isn’t his fault.

“Filth” (two stars)

An unpleasant adaptation of a novel by Irvine Welsh, the author of “Trainspotting.” This one follows an Edinburgh detective (James McAvoy) as he spirals down through various levels of corruption, drug addiction and sexual misbehavior. What’s worst about this wallow is that its scummy exterior conceals a soft center.

Rating: R, for nudity, language, violence

Opens: Friday at the Varsity theater in Seattle.

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