Movie Review: Revisiting Danny Boyle’s SHALLOW GRAVE

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About two minutes into his Shallow Grave, I knew that director Danny Boyle was going to be a big deal.

You’ll have to excuse the coming flood of nostalgia, but that first viewing eighteen years ago still sticks with me as one of the great movie experiences.  It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say I’d never seen anything like Shallow Grave – guys like Stephen Frears, Wes Anderson, Mike Hodges, Christopher Nolan, the Coen brothers, Neil Jordan, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Wachowski siblings know all too well the rite of passage that is the first feature-as-neo noir – but I’d certainly never seen the trope done this aggressively; Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge have barely finished appropriating Sunset Boulevard‘s iconic opening before Leftfield’s acid-trance title music kicks in, and we’re suddenly careening through the streets of Edinburgh.  The message was (is) clear: strap in, ‘cause this rollercoaster makes frequent track jumps.

The beginning does more than set the stage (and announce Boyle as a cinematic force to be reckoned with); it applies the pace that the rest of the movie will follow.  A long, slow track over a dead body followed by zippy exposition – this sequence defines the film’s rhythms towards its heroes, three twenty-something flatmates (Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and Ewan McGregor) whose search for a new roommate brings nothing but bloodshed and moral decay.  Boyle speeds up the times that a normal film might pause to let the audience catch its collective breath; the much-lauded interview sequence (where the protagonists mercilessly grill and reject potential roomie candidates) plays like a screwball comedy on crack, though Boyle and editor Masahiro Hirakubo also breeze through any other plot stoppers (McGregor’s interactions with Ken Stott’s suspicious copper; Fox’s doctor background).  This relentless forward momentum doesn’t just keep us off-balance.  It also establishes our leads as sharks, blithely and irresponsibly eliding the “boring” parts in their lives so they can get to the good stuff.

And when that “good” stuff comes – first in the form of their new roommate Hugo, who overdoses in his bedroom and leaves a suitcase full of money underneath the mattress – Shallow Grave slows way down.  We can sense our “heroes” lingering over their potential for avarice, sense their greed perverting them, and this happens long before the various corpse mutilations (like Blood Simple, Shallow Grave celebrates how much harder it is to dispose of a body than it is to kill someone) and crowbar-wielding thugs arrive to mete out even slower and more intimate physical damage.  The nightmare keeps extending itself further and further down the rabbit hole, yet even by the end of the movie, these slow explosions of violence carry a curious ethical clarity on Boyle’s part: he’s not going to let his main characters wriggle away glibly once the nasty ramifications of their actions roll in.

Lord knows, they try, and the easy chemistry between Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and Ewan McGregor (in his second film role, and the first of any real weight) is so much fun that it makes you overlook the questions with which a lesser picture might busy itself: who are these people (really)?  How long have they lived together?  What happened to their old fourth roommate (the one before Hugo)?  Thanks to extensive pre-production work – for a week or so, Fox, Eccleston, McGregor, and Boyle lived together in a small flat in order to cement the bonds between them – their characters emerge fully formed, or seem to, anyways; one of the great things about the film is how the introduction of sudden wealth and violence shifts their respective psychological blueprints.  McGregor’s amoral hedonist (a tabloid journalist, natch) develops the closest thing in Shallow Grave to a moral compass.  Fox’s mousy doctor has perhaps the most intriguing arc, as her prim, stoic veneer hides a world-class sociopath (just note her face as she exits the film’s final, bloody showdown).  And Eccleston’s repressed, deeply square accountant gives way to…

…Well, let’s just say that he’s the reason that Shallow Grave gets so dark so fast in its last act.  If I have any complaints with the movie (and mind you: these issues are blips on an otherwise sterling directorial debut), it’s that David’s mania slips from “realistically psychotic” to “Friday the 13th villain” as Shallow Grave comes to a close.  There’s a bit too much needless sadism, a bit (but only a bit) too much oozing blood.  However, Boyle redeems the grue with a great screen capper, the punchline to an exceptional naughty joke that would become a singular representation for his entire career: disturbing, hilarious, and effortlessly virtuosic.  Danny Boyle plays to the cheap seats, and don’t you forget it.

Criterion’s Blu-ray offers a wonderful digital transfer of the 1994 feature.  Shallow Grave is a low-budget flick (it cost just over $2 million), but the image is as slick and clean as some of Boyle’s most recent features.  Also impressive is the 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which alternates between quiet mayhem and pulsing music with aplomb.

Best of all are the supplements.  This is a stacked disc: it starts with two chatty and informative commentaries (one from Boyle, the other from John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald); moves on to two vintage featurettes (the 1993 making-of video Digging Your Own Grave and a video diary from the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival that detailed Macdonald and his brother Kevin shopping around the Shallow Grave script); and then offers a new set of interviews with Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and Ewan McGregor.  We also get the trailer, a rare teaser for Trainspotting, and an essay by critic Philip Kemp.

Shallow Grave is one of the great first features, and it’s just as funny and exciting today as it was back in 1994.  The Blu-ray gives the movie the respect it deserves; I cannot recommend this disc highly enough.

Shallow Grave streets on June 12th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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