Shallow Grave (1994)

Directed by Danny Boyle

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Danny Boyle’s debut film is full of a restless, almost manic kind of energy with the camera moving quickly, and the characters speaking even faster.  Though drugs don’t factor into the story (as they do in his next film), it’s as if these characters are constantly snorting and injecting something just off screen.  They are confident, virile and full of a certain spirit that you probably lose as you move through your thirties.  As is presented in Shallow Grave, once can only hope that spirit diminishes with age.

We meet our three main characters in a position of power.  They interview a succession of candidates for an open room in their Edinburgh flat, but they never take any of the candidates seriously.  Instead they use the process (apparently they have plenty of free time on their hands) to mock the candidates before kicking them out the front door.  It’s as if this prologue exists only to make us root for the misfortune that they soon attract.

They do find a suitable flatmate, Hugo, but just as quickly he turns up dead, and they find a briefcase full of money.  None of them pretend to grieve or even react with dismay, and instead they are like vultures over the crime scene.  Alex (Ewan McGregor) is the first to suggest ignoring the body and keeping the money, but Juliet and David (Kerry Fox, Christoper Eccleston) don’t much protest.

They then act as though nothing is amiss, leaving their dead flatmate where they found him.  They only decide to dispose of the body because of the odor.  It’s then David who draws the short stick and must saw off Hugo’s hands and feet, and this ignites his descent into madness.

Shallow Grave is an inspired little dark comedy which early on doesn’t reveal the dramatic depths of the story.  It’s so zany that it’s easy to write off the premise and where it’s headed, but the film instead ignores some of these set ups and outright subverts others.  It’s not that this story is exactly revolutionary, but it takes delight in exposing the darker sides of its characters.  Even as they turn on each other no one is really likable.  They are just a bunch of people getting a bit of what they deserve, as set up by that prologue which establishes them as self-righteous jerks.

Boyle just seems to have fun placing them in a nightmare of their own choosing.  Like with so many ‘found money’ stories there is an inevitable consequence to the sudden good fortune, but it’s not as simple as a gangster wants what’s his.  The consequences are darker, more internal, things that we’re led to believe were there all along within these characters.

Taking a step back it’s actually quite amusing that these three relatively attractive, white protagonists have the following jobs: journalist, doctor, accountant.  It’s like they were professions chosen out of a hat that reads “successful jobs.”  They don’t tell us much about the characters, and in each case I believe we only have a single scene at their workplaces.  For so much of the film you wouldn’t be able to guess who does what because they are so equally bland.  They don’t seem like characters capable of holding down a steady job, let alone one that requires as much education and commitment.

They feel like characters pulled straight from Animal House who were then thrust into a Martin Scorsese picture.  I suppose such a construct calls some attention to the improbability of this kind of storyline, but it’s also just kind of an entertaining, energetic spin on a story you’ve probably seen many times before.

Up Next: Wendy and Lucy (2008), Gone with the Wind (1939), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

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