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Shallow Grave

Shallow Grave - 1994

Directed by Danny Boyle

Written by John Hodge

Starring Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston & Ewan McGregor

I distinctly remember Shallow Grave being one of those 'word of mouth' movies in the mid-90s, with the common refrain "Have you seen Shallow Grave? You should watch Shallow Grave," often heard regarding good movie suggestions and crime-film discussions. These were the VHS days, and these were the days immediately preceding Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - when we weren't used to as much hard core violence rocking the scenes that made up British crime thrillers. Something had been knocked a little loose by the brutality in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs in the U.S., and Danny Boyle was ready to reinterpret this in a much-removed Edinburgh setting (the movie was filmed in Glasgow for financial reasons) and in an energetic way. I remember being psyched that it featured Ewan McGregor, who I'd really enjoyed watching in Dennis Potter's Lipstick on Your Collar in 1993.

Ewan features as Alex Law, one of three flatmates (the other two being accountant David Stevens (Christopher Eccleston) and doctor Juliet Miller (Kerry Fox) - both young and happy) who aren't the average people you'd normally find sharing accommodation. When interviewing for a fourth flatmate, they want to make sure first and foremost that the prospective tenant is not boring. Juliet, in the end, lets Hugo (Keith Allen) move in - he claims to be a writer, but seems the introspective, mysterious type. Not long after moving in, he's found dead of a drug overdose - leaving a suitcase absolutely stuffed with cash in his room. A fortune. Alex wants the trio to keep the money - and to do that they have to cut up and dispose of the body. Doing this sends David over the deep end, and if that's not bad enough, there are two homicidal maniacs slowly making their way towards Hugo's last address. The keeping of this windfall is going to be a bloody, violent affair which may make the three close friends worst enemies before the stabbing and beating is over.

Shallow Grave opens with Leftfield's techno track of the same name, another sign of the changing times and that this was going to be a modern crime thriller involving young people. The sped up footage keeping pace with the techno beats (the feel of all this reminiscent of Boyle's follow-up breakthrough classic Trainspotting) - and it's the attitude of our three protagonists which sells the left-field counterculture ethos of the entire film. They procede to mock all of the prospective flatmates they interview, throwing weird questions at them and sly jabs at what they see as boring attitudes or cliched social trends. What we have are three characters who see themselves as being on a higher plane than most others - but are about to be brought down to earth when they stumble into a culture that is completely foreign to them. For an accountant, a hack journalist (who Alex is) and a doctor, this criminal conspiracy involving dead bodies and a large sum of money isn't something they're confident attitudes can mock.

On a deeper level Shallow Grave also dissects the fragility of friendship when it's on a superficial level. These three share a flat - and although they often eat together, their intimacy doesn't extend far enough to survive any great tests of loyalty and devotion. As soon as it comes to cutting up Hugo's body, it should have been all three of them doing the work. Instead, David pulls out, then Juliet pulls out - before the lack of fairness in the situation leads to the drawing of straws. This is already dividing the group, because now someone has done far more than the others in this criminal enterprise. The trust rapidly erodes, especially when David's mental health deteriorates and the police come asking questions. Constant strain always eats away at the fabric of friendship, as does the fact that any one of the three could fold and talk to the cops. There's no longer any bonding going on once David goes downhill, and tempers become short. Before too long, all three characters are thinking as individuals - the undoing of any criminal enterprise - but Shallow Grave still has a few twists in store.

Although it looks and sounds pretty decent, Shallow Grave was made on a tight budget. Cinematographer Brian Tufano had been around a while, and would continue on with Boyle, doing director of photography duties on many of his films. Simon Boswell's theme and scoring is pretty basic and simplistic - background stuff to the forefront dialogue, laughter, shouting and manic Alex - who likes to drink. Masahiro Hirakubo, who Boyle would often return to for editing duties needed to do a lot of work on this fast-paced, rapid cut, speed-driven movie which has many changes in perspective, fantasy sequences, video-in-film, and other wild kind of moments. The scene where two thugs are dunking a poor man's head in a bath full of water has the neat feature of showing us his face from deep within the tub, which must have taken all kinds of effort to set up and film, from within what must have been a mock-up tub with a lot of depth to it. Shallow Grave is snappy like that - bristling with ideas.

In the end this is still a great film to watch, despite it not hitting with the revolutionary force it did when first released. But perhaps it's better for being down to earth compared to crime thrillers which would come later, after much one-upmanship led to these kind of films having convoluted plots and too many big-name stars in them. At the time, the three actors in Shallow Grave weren't all that well known. I like it for it's simplicity, and it's range of tone - starting something like a comedy and getting darker and more serious the further we proceed, much like what the characters are getting into gets darker and darker after being a joyful lark (dead body or not.) The final twist was the one thing I still remembered from this blast from the past - the rest all rediscovered. The 90s seemed to rewrite all the rules as far as crime thrillers went and Shallow Grave was in the vanguard - as a movie watcher it was the forerunner to much of the same stuff we still see today. Something very new from Britain, pre-Guy Ritchie.