Going a bit more contemporary over the next few days; a brief respite from the world of classic cinema but that doesn’t mean that the movies here aren’t classic in their own way. I’m a huge fan of the Criterion collection of DVDs (what film fan isn’t?) and I’ve easily been waiting three months for their release of Danny Boyle‘s Shallow Grave as it was largely unavailable before that. The film is a great psychological thriller that one could easily compare to a Hitchcock film (I’m a little sad I didn’t suggest it for the upcoming Best Movies Hitchcock Never Made blogathon). With amazing performances from the three leads, before they were famous, and a great slew of features, I recommend watching Shallow Grave on Criterion.
Three friends are looking for a new flatmate. When they finally pick a guy he ends up dead in their house with a suitcase filled with money. The group are conflicted on what to do but decide to dismember the dead man and bury him in a shallow grave. As the thugs who own the money come calling, and the police end up on their tail, the friends start to become increasingly paranoid and start to turn on each other.
“If you can’t trust your friends, then what then?” That’s one of the opening lines said by the dour faced David (Christopher Eccleston) and it sets the tone for the entirety of the film. These are three best friends in the beginning, who slowly devolve into murderous traitors by the end. If these three best friends can’t trust each other than what does that say about the rest of society? Shallow Grave boasts several themes director Danny Boyle has looked at in films including the effects of greed and finding supposed bliss in the forbidden. If anything it’s a bloodier version of a later film of Boyle’s that I covered during Christmas, his family film Millions (I mentioned this was a bloodier version!).
Shallow Grave is actually Boyle’s directorial debut (most people assume it’s Trainspotting) and there’s an amazing essay that comes with the Criterion DVD that discusses why Shallow Grave is such a turning point in British Film. The 90s saw many of the films coming out of Britain as Jane Austen adaptations and other “classy” types of films that showed British citizens as austere, prim, and living in a time gone by. According to Boyle himself this film tried to shake off “the moral baggage that British films carry around all the time” and boy does it succeed. The three characters in the film aren’t necessarily likeable to the majority of people, as seen when they mock and make fun of every potential roommate that they interview. They don’t want to find the worst flatmate but they themselves are the worst! The joy is that stars Ecclestone, Ewan McGregor (himself in his first starring role), and Kerry Fox have the type of chemistry that you find in people who have lived together for a while. They know each other neuroses and are likeable when they’re together.
The script, written by John Hodge, plays with conventions throughout. Just in the three characters and the way they’re introduced is not how the personality they end the film with. David is the “normal” guy in the group, an accountant with no social skills. Juliet (Fox) is a doctor with an indifferent attitude to most things, and Alex (McGregor) is the smart ass. By the end David has unleashed his inner sociopath, Juliet becomes a femme fatale and Alex is the one left standing with any morals! It even plays with conventions of similar thrillers. There’s a moment where Alex goes to the bathroom and by the way the scene is constructed you assume Alex is going to be attacked, possibly by the men looking for the dead roommate, Hugo’s, money. Alex is attacked, but it’s by the geeky potential roommate Cameron that is at the same event as them! It’s funny because it’s non-threatening and because the character is so meek and mild!
Even the character of Hugo is a contradiction. He mentions having an “interesting” back story, and yet he dies before ever disclosing it. As the movie progresses we know he’s in some bad business but we never truly know who these guys are to Hugo or what kind of business he’s in. We just know he’s murdered some people. Hugo is the catalyst that shapes the rest of the events in the movie. There’s a cross-cut of him killing a man while talking to the three friends meant to establish that no one knows each other. You never know the person you’re living with and that pushes the three friends to question each other. There’s a hilarious moment where the group discover Hugo dead…and naked. It’s shocking at first glance but you have to laugh because in 30 second they’ve learned far too much about him!
With Hugo’s death the trio go to insane lengths to keep his death, and the money, a secret. They decide to hack him up and it’s done in such a grotesque and effective way. The audience never sees Hugo being dismembered. We’re simply left to hear the sawing of bones and see the looks on the trios faces. Obviously whatever they’re seeing is far worse than we’re seeing and the audiences’ imagination runs wild. David, being the one responsible with dismembering the body, becomes paranoid and finds an inner savagery that wasn’t there before. He starts spying on Alex and Juliet and the two start to live in terror of him (a shift considering he is supposed to be the level-headed one in the group). Interestingly, even this has a limit. David can’t spy on Juliet undressing, the one social constraint that hasn’t been lost.
I won’t spoil the myriad twists and turns this movie goes through, really I’ve just scratched the surface. Hopefully, Shallow Grave finds new life on Criterion. Ah yes, the Criterion itself. I bought in Blu-Ray which is the best if you have an HD television. There’s a lot of bright colors in this movie that pop on an HD, particularly the reds. In terms of bonus content, having not seen any other DVD version of this, everything felt new even though it wasn’t. There’s two DVD commentaries, one from Boyle himself recorded in 2009 and another featuring screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald recorded in 2012. Boyle’s is a bit more technical, discussing casting and the formation of the film itself. Hodge and Macdonald’s was my favorite as it goes further to discuss the role of this movie in regards to British cinema. They discuss specific film movements and it makes the film feel like a part of a community of movies. It’s the one I recommend. The booklet in the DVD also includes an analytical essay written by Philip Kemp worth a read. There are interviews with the three stars, recorded this year, discussing what the movie did for their careers, what it was like to make, and it’s a great mini-commentary from the actors. There’s also a video diary from 1992 when the director/screenwriter were attempting to get financing for this movie that’s really funny, as well as a documentary directed by Macdonald. There’s also two trailers for the film.
Shallow Grave is a fun, dark comedy worth a watch. I also recommend purchasing the Criterion copy, whether DVD or Blu-Ray. You never go wrong with a Criterion film!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.