Movies: Shallow Grave (1994)

British director Danny Boyle first came to worldwide attention in 1996, with his breakout hit Trainspotting, a charmingly scuzzy black comedy about drug addicts, and a film that is largely credited with revitalizing the somewhat stagnant British film industry at the time, which had been mostly focused on social realism dramas and prestige period pieces. Boyle would subsequently go on to wider acclaim and success, helming projects such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours.

Before all that, though, back in 1994, Boyle’s debut feature also made some waves, earning him a BAFTA and several other awards across Europe, as well as being the most commercially successful British film of the year. That movie was Shallow Grave, a pitch-black comedy crime thriller about a group of horrible friends and the depths they sink to in order to get their hands on a heap of money. Not only did Shallow Grave set the stage for Boyle’s meteoric rise and critical hailing as one of the saviors of British cinema, it also served as a star-making vehicle for two of the UK’s most exciting and upcoming young actors.

Written by physician John Hodge—his first screenplay, and one that would lead to several more collaborations with Danny Boyle going forward—Shallow Grave was a film I only saw a few years after its release, and after I had already seen Trainspotting. For whatever reason, Shallow Grave didn’t make much of a splash in the United States, but I immediately fell in love with it when I saw it on DVD, and it always makes me kind of sad that it isn’t more widely known or talked about, at least in my experience, because it’s a great film: darkly hilarious, gruesome, and buzzing with energy.

At the center of the story are three flatmates, all young professionals. First, there’s Dr. Juliet Miller (played by Kerry Fox, the film’s big draw as she was an indie sweetheart at the time), a coldly flirtatious and somewhat imperious woman whose constant unanswered phone calls hint at intricate romantic entanglements. Then there’s squirrelly chartered accountant David Stephens (played by Christopher Eccleston, one of my favorite actors, in one of his early film roles), who is very precise and uptight, nervous, and introverted. And finally, there’s tabloid journalist Alex Law (played by a then-nearly-unknown Ewan McGregor; this was only his second film role, and his first of major significance). Alex is the wiseacre of the group, mouthy, flippant, and casually cruel, never taking anything at all seriously. The trio shares a spacious flat in a desirable neighborhood of Edinburgh (even though the film was mostly shot in Glasgow), and the dynamic between them is fascinating from the get-go; despite their wildly divergent personalities, they all seem to share a particular sort of youthful arrogance and lack of compassion for others, reveling in their middle-class privilege and perceived superiority. There’s also an unspoken but very obvious sexual tension between the three of them; Juliet and Alex flirt constantly, while David seems to quietly pine for Juliet from the sidelines. Juliet, for her part, seems to take special delight in being an object of desire for both of her friends.

At the beginning of the story, the flatmates are seeking a fourth person to move into their large apartment. It’s never made clear why they need a fourth tenant, or indeed if they had one before, and if they did, what happened to them, but this is neither here nor there. And for a while, it seems as though they aren’t actually seriously considering having a new flatmate move in because every single person who responds to their ad is ruthlessly mocked to their faces, asked ridiculous and impossible questions, or expected to respond to outrageous statements made by one of the three roommates. One candidate, an awkward ginger-haired fellow named Cameron, gets the worst of it, as Alex essentially tells him straight up that he’s too much of a loser to share air with them. After each potential flatmate leaves dejectedly, the three friends cackle like hyenas at their “cleverness” in ridding themselves of these inferior specimens.

Shortly afterward, though, while Juliet is in the flat alone one day, a very different sort of prospective tenant arrives in the form of an older, suave, ruggedly handsome, and alluringly mysterious man named Hugo (played by Welsh actor Keith Allen, who—fun fact—is the father of singer Lily Allen). Hugo is a novelist and seems quite well-heeled and sophisticated; Juliet is intrigued, and after he leaves, she tells the others about him. Hugo subsequently comes over for dinner to meet David and Alex, and they all agree that Hugo will be allowed to move in.

So far, so good: Hugo sets up house in the extra room, and the others go about their lives. But the following day, Hugo doesn’t come out of his room and doesn’t answer the other roommates’ summons. His car is still parked in the street, and no one saw him leave, so what’s he doing in there? The bedroom door is locked, so the flatmates bust it down, only to find—spoiler alert—a naked Hugo sprawled dead across the bed, of an apparent drug overdose. Juliet is a doctor and is relatively unfazed, and Alex, even more callously, immediately begins rifling through the dude’s belongings to see what he can find out about him. David—the sensitive one of the trio—is the only one who seems at all disturbed by Hugo’s untimely demise.

During Alex’s shakedown, he discovers a suitcase under the bed that is filled to the brim with cash. Proper, by-the-book David insists that they should go straight to the police, reasonably arguing that bad people might be looking for that money, but Juliet and Alex chide him for his cowardice and eventually wheedle him into keeping the money for themselves. Problem is, though, they’ll have to get rid of the body somehow, and while these three are fairly amoral douchebags, they presumably don’t have much experience with corpse disposal. They have apparently seen a lot of crime programs, though, so Alex suggests they take the stiff far out into the woods, cut off his hands and destroy his teeth in order to hamper identification, bury him in a remote location, then dump his car into a deep reservoir. Juliet agrees to dispose of Hugo’s hands in her hospital’s incinerator.

While all of this planning is going on, there are occasional intercuts of two criminals—associates of Hugo’s—asking around and torturing various people to get information on where Hugo got off to with all that money, so you just know that it’s only a matter of time before their paths will cross with those of the oblivious housemates.

Juliet, Alex, and David put their plan into motion, but when the time comes for the rubber to hit the road—in other words, when someone actually has to climb down into Hugo’s grave and mutilate his body—no one particularly wants to do it. Alex was expecting Juliet to do the deed, since, as he sensibly quips, “You’re a doctor. You kill people every day.” Juliet insists this situation is different, though, so the trio decides to draw straws. Unfortunately, David gets the honors, and a grimly stylish sequence follows in which the accountant is silhouetted by lurid red brake lights as he saws away at Hugo’s mortal remains.

So, with that little obstacle dispatched, the housemates are seemingly home free, right? Not so fast. David thinks they should hide all the money for a time until they can be sure no one is looking for it, but the impulsive Alex and Juliet argue that what good is taking all that cash if they can’t enjoy it? For a while, David’s plan prevails, and he stashes the suitcase in a water tank up in the attic loft, but shortly afterward, Alex and Juliet get greedy and take some of the money to go on a ridiculous spending spree. There is also an amusing scene—something of a bellwether of what’s to come regarding actions having consequences—where Alex gets paid back for his assholishness toward red-haired prospective tenant Cameron at the beginning of the movie.

Subsequently, David’s mental health begins to deteriorate: the previously quiet, introverted accountant becomes more forceful and aggressive, but also more paranoid, as he begins to believe (rightly, as it turns out) that Alex and Juliet might have their own plans for the money that don’t involve him. He moves up into the attic to guard the loot, drilling holes in the ceiling so he can keep an eye on the other two flatmates. And soon enough, in the midst of all the escalating tensions between the three friends, the chickens come home to roost, as both Hugo’s former associates and the police begin sniffing around.

For a debut feature, Shallow Grave is a remarkably assured film, and bears much of Danny Boyle’s signature style, nearly fully formed already. There’s the kinetic editing, the voiceover framing (by David, in this case), and the gang of obnoxious and violently unlikable, yet somehow compelling, main characters. It definitely has elements of the Coen Brothers’ early work, particularly Blood Simple (which Danny Boyle readily acknowledged as a direct influence and which I talked about here), and a tinge of Hitchcock, but filtered through a distinctly 1990s-Britain sensibility. Though watching it now, a couple of decades removed from when I first saw it, I found some of the early dialogue, where the flatmates are abusing the potential tenants, a little tryhard, it’s still a darkly funny romp, with some great performances, cool camerawork, and an entertaining narrative that never lets up during the whole runtime. If you liked Trainspotting and some of Boyle’s later work and haven’t seen Shallow Grave, I would definitely recommend it, especially to fans of stylized British crime thrillers that are liberally laced with black humor.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


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