in Criterion Month

Shallow Grave (1994)

Danny Boyle is forever young. No matter what he does (or how good it is) you always feel his youthful energy. Boyle’s films are high adrenaline, quick-paced, and never boring. Stupid, maybe *cough, The Beach but never boring. What amazes me is that Boyle wasn’t a young hotshot music video director or hipster underground filmmaker when he made his first feature. Boyle was 38-years-old with a respectable background in theater and producing/directing for the BBC. How that evolved into marathon running zombies and guys chopping off their arms I don’t know, but he’s never lost that spark. Boyle knows how to balance the fine line between high art and entertainment, and in no place is that better displayed than in his 1994 dark comedy Shallow Grave.

I knew I was going to like Shallow Grave after ten seconds. Christopher Eccleston lying down and narrating as a camera angelically floats above his head and then cuts to a POV shot speeding through the city accompanied by ’90s house music. I miss ‘90s house music. It reminds me of Hackers. Coincidentally, both this film and Hackers share the same composer, Simon Boswell. The ‘90s man, what a time to be alive.

We meet our three leads; David (Christopher Eccleston), Juliet (Kerry Fox), and Alex (Ewan McGregor), three arrogant young professionals interviewing applicants for their flat in Edinburgh. The scene is a montage of condescending questions and unanswerable hypotheticals aimed at an assortment of confused individuals. Questions like “Now when you sacrifice a goat and you rip its heart out with your bare hands, do you then summon hellfire? Or do you just send out for a pizza?” These are superficial people with superficial goals that mock sincerity, of course, this leads to their downfall.

The trio finally settles on a mysterious yet suave flatmate named Hugo (Keith Allen). Though Hugo hardly interacts with the group before they find him dead in his room from an apparent drug overdose. The absurdity doesn’t end there when Alex finds a large suitcase of money among Hugo’s possessions. So the group, against David’s wishes, decides to dismantle the body, bury it in the woods, and take the money. Which they do… But what happens when the grave they dig isn’t deep enough?

Later dealing with a nosey detective (Ken Stott) the group is also being tracked down by associates of Hugo’s aka violent murderers who want their money and don’t care who they have to kill to get it. The results are a taught thriller with odd splashes of dark comedy, inventive camerawork, and solid performances. Particularly from Ewan McGregor in his first leading role as the most eccentric of the three.

The plot feels very Hitchcock but the best moments come between the three tearing into each other. They are so quick to try and sell each other out to avoid being caught it leads to a series of unpredictable outcomes. Even the pace and beats of the movie feel unique as the arrival of the thugs happens at a moment you wouldn’t expect and the film has just as much momentum (if not more) after they show up.

Even if you don’t plan on seeing Shallow Grave anytime soon I can’t in all good faith spoil the ending. I will say there is blood involved and excellent use of the song “Happy Heart” by Andy Williams. The music, the look, the editing, the actors… all the film needs is Robert Carlyle and it would be the perfect Danny Boyle film. It’s one of his best and I am strongly considering picking up the physical Criterion for this one. Look at all the hammers!