Prior to their respective successes with American audiences as the director of Trainspotting, the older new Doctor Who, and the other Obi-Wan Kenobi, filmmaker Danny Boyle and actors Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor came together to create Shallow Grave: a truly unique Scottish mystery with a moral as old as time itself. The tale opens with a harsh introduction to our three apathetic, intellectually-arrogant main characters (Eccleston, McGregor, and actress Kerry Fox): who enjoy tormenting their flatmates with bizarre, humiliating questions — queries that ultimately result in the tortuous trio seeing their guests to the door.
One day, however, a prospective tenant catches their attention, and a fourth comrade enters the fray. The relationship does not last very long, though, as the boys and gal soon find his naked corpse in his room — and, more importantly, a suitcase full of money nearby. And here is where the already repellent individuals take an additional step towards dehumanization: they vote to keep the money for themselves, and decide to then disfigure and dismember the body, burying it out in the country (in a burial spot that reflects the film’s title, of course!), thereby saving them the trouble of a police investigation.
Sadly, things only spiral out of control from there as several parties looking for the cash in question begin to make a few violent inquiries of their own, leading them to our anti-heroes. Meanwhile, our stars themselves witness the horrific psychological transformation that only a deadly sin like greed can bring about: paranoia, violence, and the ever-hurtful trail of falsehoods that anyone guilty of disfiguring and dismembering a found body is more than likely to start up. Well, I can only guess on that one, folks. Really.
Essentially, Shallow Grave is a prime example of the excellent cinema the world had to offer in the early-to-mid ’90s — movies that were eventually copied from every corner of the globe ad nauseum, and which were soon nowhere to be seen once filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino became popular. At the same time, Shallow Grave represents the quintessential flaw many first time writers and directors make: Boyle brings us a great idea, but his inexperience results in the film being slightly imperfect.
At the same time, his ingenuousness in-turn has a certain aspect of ingeniousness that is most rewarding: witness his brilliant use of color, set design, camerawork, and editing — not to mention his deliberately deficient characters. Sure, the whole thing is missing a wee bit of this and that here and there, but, had it been made only a few short years after Boyle hit mainstream success with Trainspotting, the overall artistic and aesthetic output would have been greatly diminished by characters that were too finely polished, and a story that had been re-written to the point where only conventional, run-of-the-mill moviegoers would be able to appreciate it — which would have surely resulted in the film not becoming part of the Criterion Collection!
In other words: appreciate what you’ve got, kids.
The folks at Criterion have once again brought us another gem from the past (although it seems like just yesterday when I first saw this title on video store shelves) with an outstanding video presentation so clear, that you can at last see directly inside Ewan McGregor’s chin cleft. The accompanying DTS-HD MA 2.0 English soundtrack delivers exceptionally well, as well, and optional English (SDH) subtitles are on-hand just in case you have difficulties with the accents (you know who you are).
Special features include the 1994 documentary “Digging Your Own Grave,” a wacky video diary from 1992 with producer Andrew Macdonald trying to get funding for the film, two audio commentaries (one from 2009 with the director, the other a new one with Macdonald and writer John Hodge), trailers for both Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and brand-new interviews with the film’s three stellar stars. As is the case with most Criterion releases, there is also a booklet included; this one with an essay on the title penned by critic Philip Kemp.