Flying Off the Rails: Danny Boyle's 'Shallow Grave'

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge make speedy math of the Hitchcockian formula.

Shallow Grave

Release sate: 2012-06-12
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Keith Allen, Ken Stott
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: Polygram

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.