So yesterday I watched Marvin’s Room. Because of that, I decided that today I needed something with a bit more…guts. So, despite have recently put up a review of something from my horror lists, I felt like I needed something along those lines today. Thus it is that I watched Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle’s first full-length theatrical release. This is not a horror movie by any legitimate measure. What it is is a very violent neo-noir and one of the first films in the more modern breed of ultraviolent British crime films. Shallow Grave lacks the fun of a film like Snatch, opting instead for intrigue, mistrust, and pure evil.
The plot is ridiculously simple. Three roommates are looking for a fourth to share their apartment. The three are young professionals, all with decent careers and prospects. Alex Law (Ewan McGregor) works for an Edinburgh newspaper as a reporter. Juliet Miller (Kerry Fox) is a doctor. David Stephens (Christopher Eccleston) is a chartered accountant. The search for a new roommate is more of a chance for them to make fun of people and put them through a terrible interview process, but eventually they settle on Hugo (Keith Allen), who claims to be working on a novel.
Everything changes when the three discover Hugo dead in his room. Things change even more when they discover a suitcase full of money under his bed. And this is the entire movie. What the hell do they do with a dead roommate and a small fortune?
Their choice is to make a quick run to the hardware store and buy some tools. They drive out to a nearby forest with Hugo’s body and draw lots to see who gets the nasty work. David draws the short straw (literally) and gets the job of removing Hugo’s hands and feet and smashing in his teeth to prevent identification. Juliet gets the task of taking the hands and feet to the hospital and dropping them in the incinerator. Alex gets the easiest task—digging the eponymous shallow grave.
If that were it, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. The first issue the trio has is that Hugo wasn’t simply some novelist but involved in crime. Two men are searching for him, killing their way through a series of informants on their way to the money. Second, the task of dismembering the body puts David straight over the edge into full-blown paranoia. He moves the suitcase into the attic, moves himself into the attic to stand guard over it, and drills a series of holes into the attic floor to spy on the apartment below. The third problem is the police, who have started to close in on the missing money and the discovery of what is lying in the woods.
One of the reasons that Shallow Grave works as well as it does is the three main characters. In addition to being a trio of solid performances, it’s the actual characters that make the film work. If the three people were slackers (as in Boyle’s next film Trainspotting) it wouldn’t work nearly as well. These are moderately successful people and while they aren’t particularly likable, they are sympathetic in a sense, or at least relatable. It’s incredibly easy to picture junkies and criminals chopping up a body and going on a bender with the cash. It’s much different to picture people that we can identify with doing the exact same thing. And really, that’s the point here.
Danny Boyle is frequently cited as having trouble with his third acts. Some people knock 28 Days Later for a weak third act (I don’t) and almost everyone (including me) knocks him for the crappy third act of Sunshine. Shallow Grave does not suffer from this problem. In fact, the last 10 minutes of the film are some of Boyle’s best work. There’s an intensity to the final confrontation that works completely because of everything that’s been built up to this point in the film. The buy-in is amazingly simple.
Shallow Grave isn’t a perfect film. The arrival of the two criminals, for instance, is poorly explained. It wasn’t until they appeared a couple of times that I started to understand exactly who they were in relation to the other characters and Hugo. Similarly, the two police characters who show up to question the three flatmates are straight out of central casting. They’re not bad, but they certainly aren’t interesting or unique in any way. They’re the same kind of smart, kind of bullshitting cops that always appear at one point or another in a film like this one.
But what Shallow Grave lacks in originality or coherence in a few places it makes up for with sheer intensity. We as the audience never really know what’s going on for much of the film. Additionally, there are moments of cold-blooded cruelty that add to the personal thoughts of exactly how far any of us might go in this situation.
When I first added the horror movie lists to this blog, Shallow Grave was a film I couldn’t find. Criterion wisely added it to their collection a couple of years ago, so it’s suddenly easily available. Good work, Criterion. This was a solid choice.
Why to watch Shallow Grave: Because it kicks ass.
Why not to watch: Confronting potential demons.