Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle's 1994 debut film shot on a limited budget of just one million pounds, shouldn't work. But it does and it still stands up today, proving that Boyle was a director who came straight out of the starting gate a success. Debuts simply aren't supposed to be this good, but Shallow Grave is, and each time I watch it, it just gets better and better.
It's a dark yet deeply witty almost neo noir concerning three Edinburgh flatmates, David (Christopher Eccleston), a chartered accountant, Juliet (Kerry Fox), a doctor, and Alex (Ewan McGregor), a journalist, who are seeking a fourth flatmate at the start of the film. After a sequence of interviews, in which unwanted applicants are rejected with calculated cruelty, they take in the mysterious Hugo (Keith Allen). When Hugo suddenly dies of a drug overdose, they discover that he has a very large amount of cash in a suitcase. The three decide to keep the money and to dispose of Hugo's corpse in the titular shallow grave.
Another thing that makes you think this film should be unworkable is the lead characters (played by the then largely unknown trio - itself indicative of the low budget nature of the piece). They are all deeply unlikeable and neither one of them appeals to the audience. From the very first scene on, in which they 'interview' a succession of potential flatmates (and for interview read insult, bully, cajole and play mind games) we see that the central trio work as an impenetrable and deeply incestuous force field that the outside world are simply not allowed to breach.
"Normally I don't usually meet people. Unless I know them already" ~ David
It's clear from their careers and their personalities that they are deeply clever and highly professional, but they seem to use such quick wits, skills and talent with an ennui which they relieve by making fun of and behaving coldly towards those they see as beneath them, purely to amuse one another.
The film was made in 1994 in the closing final years of the Tory rule and John Major of the UK. By this stage we had endured fifteen years of a doctrine that publicly refused to acknowledge society ("There is no such thing as society" as Thatcher said) and encouraged self made enterprise and success amongst professionals. The characters of David, Juliet and Alex are very much - despite whatever their actual political affiliations may be - Thatcher's Children, and she would be very proud of each of them. They are cold, misanthropic, aloof and clearly very good at the pressurised roles they are employed to do, but in doing so they utterly eschew links with anyone else other than each other. The outside world, full of boring mundane little people, is there to entertain them, and this feeling is heightened by Boyle keeping the vast majority of the film contained within the flat, almost as if it were a stage play.
Now, this would feel claustrophobic in some cases, as indeed it does in a lot of stage-to-film adaptations. But not in Shallow Grave; as the flat in question is a large and spacious, typically plush, Edinburgh flat for the upwardly mobile. It is our leads prize, and one they know the prospective fourth flatmates yearn for. That other fictional Thatcherite emblem, Harry Enfield's 'Loadsamoney' would tease and goad those he felt superior to with his thick wad of notes, whereas here, David, Juliet and Alex use their beautiful desirable flat. It is a flat that serves as a near paradise landscape for our self appointed playful, idle 'Gods' allowing them to flaunt it to those they ridicule. And cleverly the desirable pad has an oft changing landscape too, with the lighting and Boyle's use of colour changing from warm and pleasing in some scenes-notably the scene where Kerry Fox first interacts with Keith Allen; with its sun dappled air, the neat inclusion of a potted plant in the corner and the beige colour scheme, it's positively Tuscan!
But the flat seems to become much colder and darker and altogether more uninviting during other scenes, notably those of high drama
Incredibly, the flat is actually a set built for the film! It's a real stroke of genius as you never once feel that you are watching the actors on a set. You never for a second suspect that the view beyond the windows is anything other than legit, and not the painted prop it actually is. It all feels so real, and the design and aforementioned use of colour and lighting means one never gets bored or claustrophobic with such a static set. The flat itself becomes almost another character in the film. Incidentally the colour scheme is allegedly based on this painting by Edward Hopper, entitled 'The Hotel Lobby'.
Shallow Grave is a film that you simply cannot second guess either. When Keith Allen appears at the door as Hugo, effortlessly charming Juliet, you would be forgiven for thinking Allen would be a catalyst for the film and figure large. He does, of course, but not in the way one expected. His death within the first twenty minutes after just three scenes is a suitably bold move by the writer John Hodge and completely stuns anyone who thought Hugo may have been a character who forced himself into the circle and, by sheer strength of personality, be the one to actually break them apart. It's equally bold from Boyle himself as Allen was likely to be the film's most recognisable face at that time. Now most famous as Lily Allen's father, Allen was at the time something of an enfant terrible of British TV and cinema; someone who revelled in his reputation as a hellraising troublemaker but who was, and indeed still is, deeply passionate about projects he is involved in. Shallow Grave is no exception and the discovery of his dead body, in full frontal nude repose, clearly shows his full tilt commitment, as indeed does the fact that during the shoot he wasn't particularly bothered about his nude scene being filmed with a closed set - the more the merrier was his belief!
"Go ahead then telephone. Telephone the police. Tell them it's a suitcase full of money and you don't want it" ~ Alex
So, what do three deeply unlikeable people do with a suitcase full of money?
Actually what would three likeable people do with a suitcase full of money??
With only David expressing any real reservations, Juliet and Alex decide to keep it which leaves the thorny and unpleasant issue of dismembering and burying of the body. Unusually, it's Juliet who ultimately wimps out and steadfastly refuses to get her hands too dirty which leads to another of the film's quotable and witty lines, spoken by Alex (who may at heart be a petulant selfish and an annoyingly over-excitable child - McGregor playing himself perhaps? - but at least he's a funny fucker) "But Juliet, you're a doctor. You kill people everyday"
It's a harrowing experience, for David especially, but one Juliet and Alex swiftly get over at least, and again in typical Thatcherite fashion, by spending their way out of the bad times. David, already pinned by the audience as being more sensitive and clearly suffering mentally from his part in the disposing of the corpse, becomes more introverted and more paranoid however.
"No no, that's what you paid for it. 500 pounds is what you paid for it. We don't know how much it cost us yet. For you two to have a good time, we don't know the cost of that yet" ~ David
And he's right. As we, the viewer, have seen in occasional gory glimpses, there are two thugs (one played by Peter Mullan) on the trail of the departed Hugo, and they've been dispatching several people in a variety of emotionless and torturous ways. Boyle once again employs a stunning use of colour, filling the screen with great swathes of bright and bold hues. Look at the scene in which they hold a battered victim's head under bloody water - pinkish red fills the screen along with, of course, his anguished features. It's this palette, this confidence to use colours, that sets Shallow Grave - and a lot of Boyle films since - apart from the usual canon of low budget British films. Indeed, his use of sound throughout too has a considerable polish that makes it stand out. But Boyle and Hodge sell us another dummy; just as before, when we expected Hugo to break through the central character's force field and take the film in one direction only for us to be wrong footed, so too are we wrong footed by their plans for Hugo's pursuers - who are swiftly killed by David as opposed to them killing the flatmates. You see, by this stage David has gone quite mad and taken to living upstairs scampering around manically like some homicidal Howard Hughes in the in the loft, where he's built his own little empire for all he purveys, and indeed, pervs - spying on his two flatmates below, care of small drilled holes in the ceiling. He's also taken the money, hiding it in the water tanker. He's toughened up too, and has no qualms this time in cutting up and burying the thugs out in the woods - even going so far as to remove their distinctive tattoos.
One of the recurring motifs of the film is the spiral staircase to the flat which is a metaphor for the whole piece; things will spiral out of control. From the moment they get their hands on that suitcase our disagreeable aloof trio's close tight bonds begin to break down. The thugs couldn't break it and Hugo could only break it with his demise. What breaks it is the overwhelming greed and paranoia amongst themselves; it's the typical noir or even Sierra Madre format. It's important to note that the flatmates get just one night of celebration, of excess and bliss before it all goes pear shaped, at a charity do - famous for two scenes; one in which Juliet and Alex perform the traditional Scottish dance of 'Stripping The Willow' and Alex having fell to the floor from the exertion and effort is teased by Juliet, who suggestively plonks her foot on his mouth.
And the other, where we finally see some real steel behind those Cronenberg inspired spectacles of David, blowing up at a man who has the temerity to ask Juliet for a dance - "Well, Brian McKinley, if you want to talk to my girlfriend, you talk to me first. If you want to dance with her, then you apply in writing three weeks in advance or you're going to end up inside a fucking bin-bag. You didn't apply, so you don't dance!" Foreboding indeed.
The breakdown starting, we're introduced to two new characters who are actually able to fully breach the trio's slowly disintegrating idyll; two deeply existential policeman portrayed by Ken Stott (Scotland's perennial detective) and the writer himself, John Hodge. These are two characters far too adept at the game our 'heroes' like to play; they conclude one another's sentences with more speed and elan, they work just as symbiotically, and they're very very clever. In short, in their subdued dour and totally non flamboyant way, they are the flatmates match. The real Establishment have come a calling for Thatcher's bright young things.
Boyle does a neat little throwback to the opening scene here; having the policeman performing the uncomfortable and all too clever interview on the same sofa (and in Stott's case, the same crossed leg manner) as the trio had used. This time, it is the flatmates who are struggling, uncomfortable and are stuck for words facing this ordeal. The visuals Boyle has given us earlier start to crack and fracture and play in an opposite manner that is striking immediately; where once Alex, Juliet and David would fill the shot together, now they're separate, as they each try to arrange their own futures and save their own skins. Tellingly, when it looks like Alex is out in the cold and David and Juliet have formed a new impenetrable pact without him, the shots become two vs one, just like the shots of the police individually interviewing them had been.
And as all noir tells us, money is the root of all evil. Money breaks us more than makes us in film, and the flatmates reach the denouement at one another's throats, literally. Juliet has used her feminine wiles to briefly block David's paranoia towards her, and booked a single ticket to Rio. David is ready to leave himself, and Alex has convinced himself their number is up and will try to call on the police for help (typically however, existential policemen aren't there when you need them, and leave equally existential sounding answer machine greetings!) Blood began the breakdown in our confident flatmates set-up and blood will conclusively end it. Not all of our trio will live to see the end credits roll, however. David knifes Alex beneath the shoulder, skewering him to the floor before Juliet knifes David in spectacularly in the throat, from the back (remember this was the days before CGI, so we're talking prosthetics and trickery). Juliet, ruthlessly shows her cold doctor's instincts to the last and, checking the knife hasn't hit any of David's vitals, proceeds to ram it home with her heel so he cannot follow her as she flees to Rio with the money.
But she doesn't, and as the police arrive at the flat, Alex smiles the typical brazen cheeky McGregor smile as his blood drips through the floorboards onto the stashed money below. He's performed a switch, and Juliet is alone crying and screaming in her car with a suitcase full of cut up newspaper - Alex's story on the discovery of three dead bodes in a 'shallow grave' all to the soundtrack of the anachronistic and jarringly cheery Andy Williams' 'Happy Heart'. She still heads to the airport...but who knows where.
David meanwhile has only one place to go - the morgue, with a concluding dead-man narration similar to the set up of Sunset Boulevard.
Less than two years later Boyle, Hodge, the producer Andrew Macdonald and star McGregor (along with another brief appearance from Keith Allen, alongside his brother Kevin. Interestingly Boyle has suggested that Keith's role here as a drug dealer is actually playing Hugo once again; this next film having been set in the late 80s/early 90s and is therefore to be viewed as a prequel) and much of the Shallow Grave crew (same cinematographer, editor and designer) would turn out another utterly iconic, Caledonian 90 minute feature indicative of the mid '90s, featuring equally on the whole cold characters - an adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. With it's bigger budget, eclectic soundtrack and seamy no holds barred look at the underbelly of heroin culture, this second film was an instant hit and the one everyone would talk about. Even today with numerous critically and commercially successful and award laden films, to say nothing of a memorable Olympic Opening Ceremony under his belt, Boyle's name goes hand in hand with Trainspotting. But for me, it's Shallow Grave that is the better of the two. Maybe it shouldn't have worked so well, but it did. And it gets better with each viewing.
"I am not ashamed. I have known love. I have known rejection. I am not ashamed to declare my feelings; take trust for instance, or friendship. These are important things in life. These are the things that matter, that help you on their way. If you can't trust your friends, well, what then...What then?....Oh yes. I believe in friends. I believe we need them. But if one day you can't trust them any more, well, what then...What then?" ~ David