There’s a general rule in fiction that, in order to generate any real empathy or connection with your target audience, you have to make sure that your protagonists are to at least some degree sympathetic, likeable even. It’s a rule, incidentally, which seems to be dispensed with just as often as it’s adhered to, with wildly varying results. Before his films started developing the heart that would make him an Oscar winner, Danny Boyle specialized in making fables led by loathsome souls totally essential.
Two years before making his name with the classic Trainspotting, the Manchester born director made quite a splash with his modest and edgy debut, Shallow Grave. A Hitchcockian psychological horror thriller rife with distasteful gallows humor and wrought paranoid tension, the story of three flat mates, a suitcase full of money and a pesky dead body may sound like classic Coen but is flushed with the distinctive flair and control of a Director basking in his own style.
Reticent doctor Juliet (Kerry Fox), arrogant young journalist Alex (Ewan McGregor in his first major film role) and meek accountant David (Christopher Ecclestone) are the unlikely gang living it up in a plush Edinburgh apartment, using their search for a new tenant as an opportunity to wantonly humiliate strangers not privy to their dysfunctional dynamic. Eventually, through their door walks the suave and mysterious Hugo (Keith Allen, father of Lily & Game of Thrones’ Alfie), who secures the room and then abruptly dies in it of a drug overdose, leaving a suitcase stuffed full of money.
After some deliberation, the trio decide to keep the cash and dispose of the body after a gruesome night of dismembering and burial detail. Unfortunately, the three have very differing attitudes towards the quirk of fate, not to mention how they should handle all their new cash, leading to a terrifying battle of wills as each show their true nature under extreme circumstances. Complicating matters further are two gangsters (Peter Mullan & Leonard O’Malley) killing their way towards the money, and a local detective (Ken Stott) investigating a crime in their building who seems to know more than he realistically should.
It’s the same blueprint which has laid the foundations for various films before and since, albeit not usually in British cinema and certainly not in the fresh format that Boyle delivers. When the crime and double crossing begins, pressure is slowly cranked up not by the unpredictable action and plot twists, but instead by the claustrophobic psychological warfare taken up by the characters, ethically unsound before embarking on their caper and teetering on the brink afterwards. The tight and consistent characterization of the three leads delivers most of the essential viewing and without doubt heaps more tension on the viewer.
John Hodge’s script is full of crackling dialogue with a real ear for distinctive voices, and also makes sure that the descent into nightmare territory is both feasible and frightening. David, played with aplomb by future rent-a-villain Ecclestone, transforms from quiet and mild mannered drip to murderous hoarder and unhinged psychotic in a worryingly believable slip into madness. Alex, who is the ultimate incarnation of every smarmy and laconic trick in Ewan McGregor’s book, conversely moves in the other direction, detestably nasty and giggling pre-moneybags and slowly tortured by the urge to make right towards the horrible endgame. Previously appearing to the most responsible of the group, Kerry Fox’s Juliet becomes a femme fatale interested in nothing but keeping hold of the loot. While you may not like these people, you’ll believe them and be utterly engrossed in their varying plights.
The acting is top notch as you’d expect, with even minor characters bringing life to proceedings and suggesting at untouched depths within a rather basic story. Ken Stott’s detective, almost a precursor to his reign as Inspector Rebus, says little and is maddeningly dynamic as a result, his nondisclosure and refusal to speechify teasing and torturing the audience as much as Alex, while Peter Mullan and Leonard O’Malley are genuinely intimidating and terrifying as near mute enforcers who never too far away from breaking into the main plot.
A score by Simon Boswell of old fashioned virtue builds a sense of dread during quiet scenes, while a notably dissonant use of songs, notably Andy Williams during the darkly satisfying conclusion, creates an unease both viscerally uncomfortable and logical in maintaining the film’s pitch black morality. In fact, everything that Boyle uses to bring the story to the screen is packed with a bleak humor that makes fun of the characters as much as the viewer. That sociopathic enjoyment doesn’t create any kind of distance however, as like it or not you’ll feel yourself being dragged into the murky foreground.
By its significant wit and visual style Shallow Grave sears itself on to your memory and proves to be a startlingly sharp debut for Boyle, leading directly to his world acclaimed follow up. While the lack of morality, emotional heart or good guys may make the experience somewhat unsavory, it is still deliciously dark and well constructed entertainment of the highest order and much better than simply being a genre flick.