Directed by Danny Boyle, written by John Hodge, and available now thanks to Criterion Collection, Shallow Grave is a bleakly comic film that is undermined by its unevenness and lack of details. Boyle’s picture does give us Ewan McGregor in his first leading role and it does offer a rewarding exercise in tone, but the lack of humanity and emotional connection drills unwelcome holes in the foundation.
For Boyle, his intent with Shallow Grave was to dump “the moral baggage that British films carry around all the time.” In context, this 1994 picture was relatively couched in a time of sophisticated British cinema and the darker edges hadn’t materialized to a satisfactory degree. Boyle, hoping to change that, sunk his debut film in all the distrust and despair found in “post-Thatcherite decay in Britain.”
The film focuses on three friends: Juliet (Kerry Fox), David (Christopher Eccleston) and Alex (McGregor). They are not the nicest of people and not the sort of friends that seem to be able to trust one another, but they like to have a good time and take great pleasure in belittling potential roommates. The application process to become their new pal is settled when Hugo (Keith Allen) somehow proves himself worthy. The trouble is that Hugo dies from a drug overdose.
Upon finding the body and the drugs, the trio sets various trains of thought into motion. Juliet calls emergency services but conveniently appears to get a busy signal. Alex curiously explores Hugo’s room and locates a case filled with money. The plan soon becomes to split the money three ways and get rid of the body, but things are complicated when paranoia, suspicion, and a couple of thugs come knocking on the apartment door in due time.
On its face, Shallow Grave has some distinctly Hitchcockian touches (see Rope, for instance) and reminds of films like the Coens' Blood Simple. In this instance, the characters are almost entirely odious and caring about what happens to them becomes a bit of a stretch. Their reactions are odd at times and downright cold at others, with Boyle ensuring the audience that these are, indeed, products of a materialistic age. Doing the right thing, after all, is harder when the face of monetary incentive loiters in the background.
The trouble with the movie begin with its inconsistency. Boyle opens with a brilliant set of frantic shots and pulsing dance music, soaking us in a lively, reckless environment and drawing the characters into frame with their obnoxious antics. Sadly, the frantic tone of the opening act only rarely returns (usually in dream sequences) and the movie slows down considerably when the characters’ unthinking actions seem to call for even more chaos.
What’s more, there are very few details to work with. Characters often act without reason and dialogue comes in forced spurts of cleverness and mandatory wit. Other details, like how the thugs knew Hugo was staying at the apartment or why the police are so interested in their respective deaths, aren’t dealt with. Flashbacks and cutaways to other scenes complicate rather than illuminate.
There’s also the matter of the money in the first place. These characters certainly don’t need it, so their desperation to hold on to it and their fuming paranoia seems out of place. It could be argued that Shallow Grave offers a commentary on greed in that an accountant, a doctor and a tabloid reporter would need more money (or even a roommate, for that matter). The problem is that there’s nothing to link the film to its philosophy; the audience is asked to frequently guess at character motivations.
Shallow Grave went on to win the BAFTA for best film and picked up a bunch of other awards, too. It was heralded as an “exhilarating breakthrough for British cinema” and helped lay the foundation for Boyle, who would go on to make such pictures as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. This flick is a good start and a decent bit of desolate social comedy, but the flaws are obvious and the lack of emotional connection prevents things from going anywhere truly meaningful.
Shallow Grave’s Criterion Collection release is quite well done. It features two audio commentaries: one from Boyle and the other from Hodge and producer Andrew MacDonald. There is a series of new interviews featuring McGregor, Fox and Eccleston and a half-hour documentary by Kevin MacDonald about the making of the film that really is amusing. Also included are video diaries from the producer from the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival as the script was being shopped around.