It’s debatable whether The Criterion Collection would have considered Shallow Grave worthy of their attention had director Danny Boyle not gone on to craft such a varied, interesting, and acclaimed filmography. The low-budget 1994 release was Boyle’s theatrical debut, but his career really took off with his next film, Trainspotting (1996). Over the next 15 years, Boyle would go on to direct such films as Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and 127 Hours (2010). For the former, he was awarded an Oscar for Best Director. The latter earned him two nominations, for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Shallow Grave is certainly an entertaining film that move along at a brisk pace. Boyle’s directorial style is very much in evidence, with odd, disorienting framings and hyperkinetic camera work. The cold, detached tone and bleak humor is arresting. Unlikable characters doing unlikeable things are presented unapologetically, almost daring the more uptight audience members to storm out (or turn off the DVD player). John Hodge’s screenplay basically offers another variation on the age old question, “What would you do if you found a large quantity of cash?”
At the start of the film, three flatmates are interviewing various candidates in search of a fourth. They’re rather despicable with their snobbish, belittling, hipper-than-thou attitudes. Finally they settle on someone who they don’t view with complete contempt, but he is soon after discovered dead of a drug overdose. In his room, they discover a trunk loaded with cash. Though nothing ever good comes from such theft, the trio resolves to keep the money and dispose of the body. Gruesomely sawing it into pieces, they bury the parts in a shallow grave (hence the title). But complications quickly ensue, as the flatmates are accosted by tough guys looking for the money. They get themselves into deeper and deeper trouble as law enforcement also becomes involved.
Aiding its cult popularity immeasurably is the presence of future star Ewan McGregor in his first lead role. McGregor portrays Alex, initially the most gung ho flatmate to keep the money. His charisma is unmistakable even in this very early role. Alex is a nihilistic loose cannon with a devilish sarcastic streak. Also adding to its cult appeal is the presence of future ninth Doctor in the long-running BBC television series Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston. As flatmate David, Eccleston brings a deeply cerebral feel to his performance. While Alex is more outwardly edgy, David is disturbingly hard to pin down. Rounding out the trio is Kerry Fox, at the time the most experienced of the main players. Fox plays Juliet, the female component that spurs a great deal of sexual tension amongst the mates. While the three of them are officially just friends, the obvious competition between Alex and David adds another layer to their psychologically unhealthy situation.
Shallow Grave is a generally compelling psychological thriller buoyed by a trio of excellent performances. It’s the interesting debut of one of cinema’s most consistently interesting and inventive directors. However, it’s also ultimately a bit lacking in resonance. While entertaining to watch, it doesn’t really lodge itself in one’s mind for long afterward. The movie’s strength is its visual flair, the flashy way Boyle presents the material. However disturbing the amoral behavior of its main characters was intended to be, the story isn’t deep enough to really get under the viewer’s skin.
Criterion’s DVD is well supplemented. There are two commentaries, one by director Boyle, recorded in 2009, and the other by screenwriter Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald. There are newly recorded interviews with actors Eccleston, Fox, and McGregor, edited into a 29 minute featurette. The actors talk about a variety of aspects involving the production, including where they were, career-wise, when the film was made. “Video Diary” and “Digging Your Own Grave” are vintage pieces. The former is an eight minute chronicle of the filmmakers attempting to secure a “name” actor in order to secure financing (they speak over the phone with Sean Connery, but chicken out when it comes to even mentioning their script). The latter is a half-hour piece that provides a great deal of behind the scenes footage shot during production.
Taken completely on its own terms, Shallow Grave is a fairly slight but engaging cautionary tale about taking something that isn’t yours. But for fans of Danny Boyle, The Criterion Collection has put together a pretty indispensable release that celebrates the start of a great career.