Swift as a knife in the back, Shallow Grave doesn’t spare much time for sentiment. The flatmates at its center (Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and Ewan McGregor) border on sociopathic, a trio of narcissistic young professionals whose contempt for outsiders and dependency on each other is obvious even before they decide to engage in criminal conspiracy. The question isn’t if they’ll eventually turn on each other in a riot of greed and rage; the question is when. Like clockwork, John Hodge’s script (his first) sets to work with precision and speed, introducing the players, setting the hook, and then watching as his protagonists first swallow the bait, and then struggle on the line. That brutal efficiency, combined with the film’s pessimistic take on friendship, romance, and kindness, could’ve made for an impressive but hollow piece of filmmaking. But while Shallow Grave is unquestionably dark, it’s never purely nihilistic. Partly it’s the performances, lively and venomous by turn; partly it’s Hodge’s wit; and partly it’s Danny Boyle’s direction, which uses the rock-solid plot as an excuse for all kinds of gleeful visual flourishes. It’s like watching a cartoon full of punchlines and violence, only here the wounds don’t vanish between frames.
While Boyle references the influence of the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple in his commentary track, explaining the appeal of shooting a modern noir in a stultified UK film industry, the premise itself is an old one: A bunch of law-abiding idiots get a too-good-to-be-true opportunity and make the wrong call. Opportunity in this case being the sudden death of a mysterious new roommate who leaves behind a naked corpse, a few suit coats, and a suitcase full of money; the wrong call being the decision to keep the money and bury the body, but only after sawing off the hands and feet and smashing its teeth in. The key to this kind of story is making sure the initial temptation is just close enough to legit that it’s not hard to imagine succumbing, and it’s easy to see how the aggressive McGregor (in his first major film role) is able to sway Fox and the stubborn but insecure Eccleston. It’s just a suitcase full of money. Who’s going to know?
But of course someone does know, because someone always knows about suitcases full of money. (To quote another Coen brothers film, “At what point would you quit bothering to look for your two million dollars?”) One of the smarter bits of Hodge’s script is that it never pretends otherwise. Where some films dangle the possibility of salvation over their heroes’ heads just to make their downfall all the more affecting, there’s never any sense that these three will get away without facing consequences. After all, even if they did escape, they’d still be themselves. As events tighten their grip, and the inevitable pull of paranoia and greed takes its toll, Fox, Eccleston, and McGregor swerve around each other like urban wolves, fumbling for leverage in relationships whose fault lines have long been set in stone.
Shallow Grave was Boyle’s big-screen directorial debut, and shows off the slick, confident style that would come to define his career. While that style can come off as thin, it works wonders here, turning an already tight tale into 90 minutes of pure, pulpy bliss. The music choices are particularly brilliant, serving as both ironic counterpoint and a weird sort of emotional ballast, giving monsters the souls they probably don’t deserve. For their next film together, Trainspotting, Boyle, Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald would aim for something more complex and ambitious, but it’s hard to deny the power of simplicity: three friends in an apartment that turns out to be hell.
Key Features: Criterion digs as deep as ever, providing two excellent commentary tracks (one with Danny Boyle, the other with Hodge and Macdonald), new interviews with the cast, a documentary about the making of the film, a video diary, trailers, and an essay by Philip Kemp.