Review by Gordon Justesen
Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor
Director: Danny Boyle
Audio: DTS HD 2.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 93 Minutes
Release Date: June 12, 2012
“It's not everyday I find a story in my own flat.”
“It's not a story, Alex. It's a corpse.”
Most great filmmakers experience warm up periods with their first few features. This was certainly the case with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Their first several efforts were not exactly groundbreaking masterpieces, but were good enough and paved the way for the ones later on down the road that would be.
Danny Boyle is another accomplished director who belongs on that list. His 1994 directorial debut, Shallow Grave, is a skillfully made and extremely demented comic thriller that took the British film world by storm upon its release. I first saw film many years ago (not too long after seeing Boyle's breakthrough follow-up, Trainspotting) and found it to be a superbly stylized thriller with many moments that blew my mind.
If I had reviewed the film following that first viewing, I would have penned one hell of an enthusiastic endorsement. However, in revisiting the film the impact has lessened a bit, but that's only because Boyle would later go on to make such grander masterworks like 28 Days Later..., Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Sunshine (which I still consider his finest filmmaking achievement to date). In other words, Shallow Grave showcases Boyle in true warm up mode, as this good enough, efficiently made thriller would indeed pave the way for the even greater movies he would make in the future.
The best way to accurately describe the film would be Blood Simple with a British touch, not to mention a more slightly comic tone. The film opens with three flatmates in Edinburgh: Juliet (Kerry Fox), David (Christopher Eccleston) and Alex (Ewan McGregor) desperately searching for someone to occupy the fourth bedroom of their flat. They hold a series of interviews, during which they don't hesitate in asking the most unexpected and random of questions, like asking them to identify a song on a tape player, as well as the artist and the album it's featured on.
The three eventually come to agreement after interviewing Hugo (Keith Allen), who appears to have a similar approach to life as they do. The fact that he's able to pay his share upfront in the form of cash helps a lot, too. Things couldn't have worked out more perfectly for the trio.
That is, until, they stumble into Hugo's bedroom on his first day in the flat...only to find his naked corpse lying on the bed. The cause of death appears to be that of a drug overdose, as evidence of such is littered across the room. They also manage to find a suitcase underneath the bed, containing more money than the three have ever seen.
Naturally, an extreme moral dilemma stands in front of the flatmates. They eventually come to a decision, which is to keep the money in addition to, and this is the tricky part, dispose of Hugo's body in a most grisly manner. Alex is the most enthusiastic of the three, while Juliet and, especially, David take a while to come around.
They go through with the proposed plan, and all seems well for them in the days following. But it's only a matter of time before trust amongst the three begins to completely evaporate. This turns out to effect David the most, to the point that he eventually barricades himself in the attic along with the suitcase once convinced that Alex and Juliet are plotting against him.
It also doesn't help that the police pop up and begin questioning the trio regarding Hugo's disappearance. And if that isn't enough, criminal associates of the dead flatmate pop up looking for one thing and one thing only. By then end, it's anyone's guess as to who will walk away with the money.
The performances from the three leads play a pivotal role in the film's overall impact. This was Ewan McGregor's first major role in a feature film, and it's very easy to see why he went on to bigger and better things, as he brings a great deal of energy to the role of Alex. Watching and listening to him stage the central plan, you really do feel convinced that they could get away with murder.
Christopher Eccleston, who would later put in a memorable turn in Boyle's 28 Days Later..., also delivers a memorable first impression in the role of David, who is given the most unpredictable character arc in the film. And Kerry Fox is also engaging as the lone female of the group, and does a terrific job in keeping her motivations secretive until the very end.
But the main driving force of this film is unquestionably Danny Boyle's filmmaking approach. Even though I do consider this not as strong as his later works, there is no denying that Boyle is a hungry first timer and clearly wanted to make a memorable first impression. And that he certainly did, as a result of putting every penny of his low budget to full use.
Shallow Grave remains one dangerous and fun ride of a thriller. It maybe a film clearly inspired by similarly themed films like Blood Simple, but the key ingredient here is the overall execution (no pun intended). If anything, the film should be forever cherished for introducing the world to one of our finest modern filmmakers.
Criterion shows their strengths once again by taking a low budget thriller from the early 90s and making it look remarkably good as new. The last time I saw the film was on VHS, so you can imagine how much of a huge upgrade this Blu-ray presentation is. Boyle's excellent directing is showcased brilliantly here, especially in various shots in the foreground. The image detail from beginning to end is borderline phenomenal, and even a good number of darkly lit scenes (David hiding in the attic) show off impressively well too. Color schemes are most strong too, in particular in the that of the flat setting. I was extremely looking forward to revisiting this film on Blu-ray, and I'm only too happy that Criterion was the studio to release it!
The DTS HD 2.0 mix superbly accompanies this energetic thriller. Boyle's incorporation of fast techno beats on the soundtrack really show off nicely, as does the suspenseful-esque score showcased later in the film. This is mostly a dialogue-driven piece, all of which is delivered terrifically. But do be prepared for some unsettling sound detail when it comes to body dismemberment!
A bloody awesome package in the true Criterion tradition. To start with, we have two fantastic commentary tracks: one with Danny Boyle, who is right up there with Scorsese in terms of being just a fascinating person to listen to talk about filmmaking. The second commentary is with screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew MacDonald, which while not as enthusiastic a listen as Boyle's track is nonetheless fascinating in revealing how this film ties in directly to Trainspotting. Next up is a fantastic documentary from 1994 titled “Digging Your Own Grave”, directed by Kevin MacDonald, brother of the producer and who later go on to make The Last King of Scotland, which chronicles the making of the film. There's also a Video Diary, shot by Kevin and Andrew MacDonald at the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival where the script for the film was being shopped around. In addition, we get interview segments with actors Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox, who fondly reflect on their experience making the film. Rounding out the extras are a Trailer for this film as well as the Teaser for Trainspotting.
And like all great Criterion releases, there's an insert booklet. This one features an essay by critic Philip Kemp.
Though it covers familiar ground in terms of thrillers involving the evil effect of money, Shallow Grave is nonetheless a most admirable first effort from Danny Boyle, whose filmmaking talent is showcased from the film's opening shot to its final frame. Even if the beats of the story aren't exactly fresh, the execution of the material certainly is!