Students of director Danny Boyle may have noticed that his films often feature a moment where either the narrative, a particular character, or both fly off the rails into violence, chaos or panic. It happens in Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine, among others: across genres, actors, and themes, someone or something goes some form of blood simple. This constant in his work makes his first film, Shallow Grave, now out on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray, perhaps his most elemental: it’s an entire film built around that process, despite the fact that his characters—a trio of flatmates in Scotland—have less of a distance to travel to this point than most.
When we first meet David (Christopher Eccleston), Juliet (Kerry Fox), and Alex (Ewan McGregor), they’re interviewing additional roommates for their large and deeply desirable flat in Edinburgh, taking great pleasure in dismissing, mocking, and otherwise humiliating all candidates. They’re flip and obnoxious, but funny (to a girl in dark clothing: “How do you decide which shade of black to put on in the morning?”). In their casual, middle-class way, though, the almost creepily tight-knit threesome turn out to be as amoral as the junkie hooligans of Trainspotting. One interviewee , Hugo (Keith Allen), appears unfazed by this harassment. In retrospect, this may function as a warning sign; not long after he moves in, the flatmates find Hugo dead of an apparent drug overdose. They also find a suitcase full of cash: £1 million, to be exact.
From there, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge make speedy math of the Hitchcockian formula: the flatmates consider calling the cops, and then consider, well, not. Hugo is dead; they didn’t kill him; why not take the money he’s left behind? That, of course, requires body disposal (at least by their logic; it’s never made clear why stealing the money and then reporting the death isn’t an option), which requires discretion, which requires mounting paranoia about levels of said discretion, to say nothing of people who may come around looking for Hugo and/or his money, and so on. No prizes for guessing whether the three friends are able to maintain a united front through these complications.
Boyle executes this inevitability with a lot of style and energy, bringing out vivid details both visual—the flat is painted in bright, bold colors echoed in the props, from the yellow of plastic disposal bags to the blue of Hugo’s abandoned car—and aural, like the (bright red) telephone that rings and rings with menace before the illegal stuff even begins. At the time, Shallow Grave was known as a burst of wild, hopped-up style, announcing the presence of Boyle (as well as McGregor, in his first film role) on the film scene. In retrospect, the film’s aesthetic doesn’t feel particularly MTV-ready; just stylish and confident, which for early-‘90s British cinema apparently counted as a major revelation. In recent interviews with the cast included on the Criterion edition, McGregor notes that the movie was “in opposition” to the traditional/social-realist model of British film and, as such, an unexpected success.
Its success came despite that it’s not, as Philip Kemp’s essay included with this release admits, a particularly suspenseful movie; it’s almost too swift and efficient for illicit thrills. There are moments of sudden, startling violence, but the story hurtles forward with so little fuss that even its quieter scenes feel more impatient than truly tense. In his commentary track, Boyle describes his admiration for the film’s spare, propulsive script, adorned with few stage directions. He doesn’t come out and say that the spare writing made it an ideal vehicle for his own directorial flourishes, but it comes through anyway, as when he discusses the hugeness of the apartment, with its long shadows, streams of light cutting through darkness, and the aforementioned bright colors—especially smart production design compensating for somewhat thin characters, especially given that much of the last half-hour features David holed up in the attic, growing increasingly paranoid and volatile.
Boyle frames his commentary as an extended discussion about how to make a good movie with a million-pound budget, and despite its solid reputation as one of Boyle’s best, that’s still the impression the movie leaves, almost 20 years on: a well-made, well-acted, faintly pointless calling card for Boyle’s skill behind the camera. Despite the technical slickness, it remains one of his weaker, less involving films: a thriller that isn’t all that thrilling and a dark comedy that’s more amusing than hilarious.
It’s possible that the ruthlessness of Shallow Grave has greater resonance to its native culture; McGregor mentions that the flatmates play on stereotypes of middle-class Edinburgh residents, and that his character Alex in particular is a particular sort of smug, self-confident wanker (his word choice on the latter). There’s certainly a mercenary grimness in that none of the flatmates appear to be in any particular financial hardship when they happen upon this money; they just want it, so they take it. In a way, they’ve earned their suffering before it even begins. It’s a sharp point that also the movie, entertaining as it is, feel like a foregone conclusion. This makes it difficult not to hope that Boyle’s next, even better film will follow this one into the Criterion lineup.
This DVD includes a teaser for the same team’s Trainspotting that appeared on the original home video release of Grave in the UK.