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.