A sublime introduction to a consistently entertaining filmmaker in a genre (contemporary film noir) used by other great filmmakers (Coen Bros, Wachowski Bros – OK, debatable) as their first foray into feature films. With Boyle’s high energy style to burn, John Hodge’s cynical and laceratingly funny script and Ewan McGregor’s career launching first performance, Shallow Grave fits in well with the overachieving quality of other 1990s indie classics like Sex, Lies and Videotape, Hard Eight and Reservoir Dogs.
Shallow Grave (1994) dir. Danny Boyle
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccelston
We can’t help but watch Shallow Grave now without viewing it as a sort of testing ground for this filmmaking team’s more popular, successful and pop-culturally memorable second film, Trainspotting. From the opening first person confessionary voiceover to Leftfield's foot-tapping, head-bobbing club music we know we’re in the head of Danny Boyle and his writing partner, John Hodge. Like the four Edinburgh lads in Trainspotting, writer John Hodge introduces his three leads as a group of self-obsessed, slightly annoying Scottish hipsters whom we come to love for their forthright, don’t give a fuck attitude on life.
Here they’re interviewing prospective flatmates to make a foursome in their spacious top floor apartment complex. McGregor plays a lowly tabloid writer, Alex Law; Kerry Fox is a demure but alluring doctor; and Eccelston plays David a workaholic lawyer. However assholish it may be, we can't help but indentify with the obsessive, condescending critique of the roll call of losers and weirdos showing up to be considered as a flatmate. They eventually find their mate in a handsome, mysterious gentleman whose cool demeanor easily breaks through the wall of insecurity of the threesome. However, it doesn't take long before the trio find him dead of an overdose in his bed. Before they can call the cops they find a briefcase full of money, ready for the taking.
It wouldn't be a movie if they didn't take the money, dismember and bury the body in a ‘shallow grave’, and agree to keep quiet before splitting the cash. Eventually, a pair of Scottish hoodlums come looking for the money, resulting in a violent confrontation, which sends the normally meek David into a psychotic downward spiral into oblivion.
Borrowing the same darkly comic tone of, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, Shallow Grave revels in the despicable. The dismemberment of the body, for instance, like in Hitchcock’s films, makes for an absurdly humorous set piece, starting with the trio shopping for tools in the local hardware store to the completion of the dirty deed, unfortunately randomly assigned to David.
Danny Boyle’s visual panache is front and centre, laying the groundwork for his distinct visual palette of the pre-28 Days Later period of his career. Wideangle lenses and off kilter, portrait-style compositions expressively place his characters as mere pawns in their environment.
In hindsight, Shallow Grave and its characters are a product of their environment, the post-Thatcher world of decay and extreme capitalist individualism and selfishness, a point articulated by Boyle in The Criterion Collection liner notes. There’s no doubt the cruelty enacted on Alex’s character is a comeuppance for the society’s shameless First World hubris.
But this is all periphery to the delightful plot machinations and youthful filmmaking style of Boyle and the bunch, skewering the expectations of stodgy British cinema as much as anything else.
Shallow Grave is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.