#4: Shallow Grave (1994)

Shallow Grave (1994)

One Line Synopsis

In Danny Boyle’s directorial debut, the bond of three twenty-something friends struggle with the discovery their new flatmate dead, naked, and laying beside a bag full of cash.

What Did You Miss?

Not every director has an inauspicious, humble debut in their film-making career. Right off the bat, Danny Boyle hit the triumvirate dream scenario for a novice filmmaker with Shallow Grave: critical acclaim, financial success, and a stylistic calling card of a high quality, well-crafted movie made on a tight budget.

Until the recent critical successes of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, Boyle rarely cracked the list of premier working filmmakers. Yet his recognizable techniques and visual leanings were evident immediately.  Shallow Grave began a fertile trilogy of films. 1996’s classic Trainspotting and the oft-overlooked A Life Less Ordinary (1997) featured continued collaboration with an up-and-coming star in Ewan McGregor, the talented screenwriter John Hodge, and cinematographer Brian Tufano.

Shallow Grave employs a recognizable plot trajectory also utilized in Trainspotting. The film starts off with young people having fun only to descend into a spiral of madness. Shallow Grave’s opening montage is of three snarky, fun-loving roommates interviewing potential candidates to fill their flat’s fourth bedroom; posing invasive, shocking, or utterly nonsensical questions to amuse themselves at this person’s expense.

Full of upbeat UK dance music by artists like Leftfield, visceral jump cuts, and plenty of playful “fucking with you” interviews, these scenes are prototypical of Boyle’s canon.  He employs comparable enthused, fun-loving openings in later films, from Mark Renton’s gleeful race and memorable voiceover through the opening of Trainspotting to James Franco popping wheelies at dawn around Utah’s Blue John Canyon in 127 Hours.

The sarcasm and witty roommate repartee comes to a dead halt, literally, about ten minutes into Shallow Grave. Soon after the new roommate moves in, the flatmates find his body locked in his bedroom next to a bag full of cash. The dramatic side of Shallow Grave quickly moves to the forefront, swiftly spoiling all the fun.
The narrative film turns into a gloomy thriller of paranoia, replete with the requisite shadowy lighting and stark colors, as well as recurring thematic elements of water and drowning. The group’s decision regarding what to do with their freshly deceased roommate slowly tears them apart, becoming an urban adult version of Lord of the Flies. In less capable hands than Boyle’s, this story could become very generic, very quickly.  Shallow Grave takes the simplistic tale of trauma and collective secret-keeping to a complex exposition of the divisiveness of a windfall and how quickly it can tear the fabric of friendship apart.

In Shallow Grave, you witness the genesis of a great director, the nascent stages of McGregor’s meteoric rise as an actor, and an interesting psychological thriller full of topnotch twists, impressively made on a tight budget with a script full of pitch perfect dialogue. If you haven’t seen Shallow Grave, I’d say you’ve missed a lot.


Thoughts & Notes (for after the movie… may contain spoilers)

– This film is plentiful with bits and references that will recur in later Boyle projects and especially in Trainspotting.

  • A deceptive narrator type starts both films off with a humorous, lengthy and fantastic voice over. Both are by McGregor.
  • Shallow Grave has many allusions and visions of characters being underwater when being in trouble. Trainspotting‘s most infamous scene is where McGregor as Renton dives into possibly the most disgusting toilet swims around looking for drugs, which one would think would have to be the visualization of a character hitting rock bottom.
  • In the segment where two characters have decided to free themselves of the burden of the money by buying a few video cameras and having fun, we are also introduced to a crawling baby doll. During Renton’s crazy withdrawals segment, he freaks out when he sees a crying, crawling baby approach him on the ceiling.
  • An obvious affinity for the band Leftfield as they appear in both soundtracks. The use of music in Boyle’s films are very memorable including the perfect use of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” in Trainspotting, VAST’s “Touched” for The Beach, Beck’s “Deadweight” in A Life Less Ordinary.

– Writer John Hodge has a pretty sizable role in the film as the lead investigator on the case DC Mitchell. There is a very weird moment near the end where they are photographing the scene of the crime and McGregor appears to be alive and stabbed as he talks to him. As this is happening, the film’s final reveal is happening simultaneously with the lead female Kerry Fox thinking she made a clean getaway but finding out she was duped.

Hodge wrote Boyle’s first four films until Boyle started utilizing Alex Garland, the writer of the book The Beach which Hodge converted into a screenplay. Boyle’s most recent films, 127 Hours & Slumdog MIllionaire, have been written by Simon Beaufoy who had his breakthrough writing The Full Monty.

– The writing has that trademark witty banter styling of the mid-90s that is prevalent in many indie films you see today. But as the seriousness disappears so does the chatter. The dialogue in the film is a sign of the characters spinning out of control. The situation has become so serious that even the biggest smart-ass can’t come up with a few punchy stabs at a flatmate and it becomes a variety of melodramatic confrontations.

– The film makes excellent use of an inanimate object as a character in the film. In this case it is the stark, red phone that starts as something humorous but eventually becomes an implement of fear and paranoia. This is done in many films, mostly horror films like Scream, but the use here is just another excellent example of the tensity that can be caused just by a sound or the absence thereof.

– Here’s a few of my favorite scenes to watch out for:

  • Favorite reference: McGregor watching the infamous final scene of Scottish cult classic The Wicker Man as one of his roommates is spiraling into paranoid insanity.
  • McGregor look down the barrel of a drill (pictured above).
  • The robbing of a man through an ATM shot through security camera viewpoint.
  • One of my fascinations is to age a movie by the technology used in it; The big cell phones, the bulky laptops, the video cameras.
  • Christopher Eccleston hanging upside down from his legs through the opening to the attic like a weary monkey.
  • Favorite line: When talking to his female flatmate near the film’s penultimate dramatic showdown he tells her to blame the whole thing on him if it goes wrong,  and says “That’s important to me, to die misunderstood.”