|Danny Boyle’s feature debut Shallow Grave arrived in the midst of a sweeping resurgence of independent cinema in the early to mid-1990s, much of which was extremely violent, darkly comic, and/or despairing. In her 1992 Sight & Sound article “Art House Killers,” B. Ruby Rich argued that art house cinema was officially passing the torch of sex and skin to blood and gore, citing films like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog (1992), Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy (1992), John Woo’s Hard-Boiled (1992), and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), all of which gained notoriety at various film festivals around the world that year, including Toronto, London, and New York.|
Shallow Grave, a particularly and unapologetically nasty addition to this trend, marked the screenwriting debut of John Hodge and the producing debut of Andrew Macdonald, both of whom would team with Boyle again on Trainspotting (1996), A Life Less Ordinary (1997), and The Beach (2000). The film is built around a central core of compassionless cruelty that is mitigated to some extent by Boyle’s flashy direction; as Hodge put it in a video Macdonald and his brother made while shopping the script around at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1992, “It’s about love, trust, and friendship. It’s also about sex, violence, evil, greed, anger, betrayal, duplicity, death, dismemberment, and disposal.”
The story takes place almost entirely within an exceeding large and brightly painted flat in the central and high desirous New Town section of Edinburgh, Scotland. The cheerfulness of the flat’s color palette (bright greens and blues and reds) is a mordant contrast to the despicable nature of the three flatmates who live there: Juliet Miller (Kerry Fox), David Stephens (Christopher Eccleston), and Alex Law (Ewan McGregor). All three are young, attractive, intelligent, successful, and completely lacking in any sense of empathy or morality or basic decency. We first meet them as they are interviewing prospective tenants for the unoccupied fourth bedroom, which they use as an excuse to badger and otherwise humiliate perfect strangers, particularly a meek young man named Cameron (Colin McCredie). They finally settle on Hugo (Keith Allen), a rather shady-looking, but charming and gregarious man who is (unbeknownst to them) involved in organized crime. The day after he moves in he turns up dead in his bedroom from an apparent drug overdose, leaving behind a suitcase filled with millions of pounds—a temptation that is too much for Alex, Juliet, and David to ignore. Rather than reporting Hugo’s death to the police, they cover it up by mutilating the body so it can’t be identified and burying it in the forest outside of town.
At that point Shallow Grave turns into a hothouse chamber drama, as the three friends began to crack and crumble under the strain of their misdeeds and the attention they draw from both the police and Hugo’s underworld enemies (who we see brutally torturing and dispatching several victims). They each respond differently to the situation, and Hodge amusingly aligns their initial enthusiasm for the plan with their occupations: Alex, a tabloid journalist, is gung-ho from the beginning, grinning from ear to ear and never once doubting that they should steal the money and dump the body. Juliet, a doctor, is emotionally removed from the shock of a dead body and blasé about the decision to cut it up. And David, an accountant, is practically minded and therefore the most concerned about the plan, not because of any moral reservations, but rather because he is the most realistic about their chances of getting caught. In one of the film’s cruel twists of fate, it is up to David to cut off the corpse’s hands and feet and smash the teeth with a hammer (all of which is left just off-screen, but suggested with grisly sound effects and a rapt attention to psychological trauma), and he is never the same again. Paranoid and unsettled, he relocates himself in the attic above the flat, drilling holes in the floor so he can watch what is going on in every room.
While Shallow Grave is not a great film, it is a good first film, amply demonstrating Boyle’s catchy visual flair and rat-a-tat sense of tempo, as well as Hodge’s ear for dialogue and intuitive sense of character dynamics (which helps us mostly ignore how his screenplay lacks the kind of tightly structured plot coherence and attention to detail that gives crime stories real zing). The film is replete with goosey tension streaked with relentless pitch black humor and a shameless violence-for-kicks vibe that marks it as an obvious coat-tail rider, carting the stylized neo-violence that had already taken other countries by storm into the realm of Scottish cinema. It was a purposeful affront to the dour sincerity and high-mindedness that was associated with British filmmaking at the time, and a few years later Duncan Petrie fingered it as the progenitor of a “New Scottish Cinema,” partially because of its then-unique independent funding via the Glasgow Film Fund. But, more importantly, the film’s tone was something new and unexpected, fueled by veteran cinematographer Brian Tufano’s roving camerawork and florid use of color that at times gives it the look of a comic book.
The unrepentant nastiness in Shallow Grave is both its appeal and its Achilles’ heel. While Fox, Eccleston, and McGregor give outstanding performances that efficiently carve out memorable characters in a short amount of time, their interpersonal ugliness keeps us at a constant distance. Rather than rogue criminals or charming gangsters or slick con artists (the typically likable bad guys of cinema’s darker corners), Juliet, David, and Alex are just inexplicably mean-spirited yuppie-jerks who are in various ways already at each other’s throats before Hugo even arrives (Alex’s taunting of David after beating him in squash is only the most obvious scene in this regard). Thus, when their situation turns dire and the knives come out, it feels less like devolution than an obvious outcome—the logical endpoint of their love-hate situation. The film thus lacks the lingering moral gut-punch of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo (1996) or Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998)—films in which otherwise decent people make the decision to do very bad things. This doesn’t undermine the film’s effectiveness in what it sets out to do, but it does hobble its potential for true emotional connection, turning it into more of an interesting experiment than a truly gripping examination of our worst proclivities.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3)
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