Shallow Grave (United Kingdom, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A couple of cliches come to mind while watching Danny Boyle's deliciously diabolical feature debut, Shallow Grave. The first -- that money is the root of all evil -- is obvious. The other -- that it's always the quiet ones who bear the closest watching -- is only marginally more obscure.

The comparisons are already out. Check the newspaper blurbs and you'll see that Boyle is being touted as the "new Hitchcock" or the successor to the Coen Brothers. There's even a reference or two to Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction. And, to one degree or another, these are all valid comments. Shallow Grave has a quick-paced, Hitchcockian sense of suspense, the Coen Brothers' noir atmosphere, and a Pulp Fiction- like ability to make us laugh in the most gruesome of circumstances. However, more than anything else, Shallow Grave recalls a couple of recent John Dahl films (The Last Seduction and Red Rock West) in overall feel, if not in specific content. Boyle has the same twisted fun with his characters.

The film starts off a little slowly with some necessary exposition to get the story jump-started. Three flatmates -- Juliette (Kerry Fox), a doctor; David (Christopher Eccleston), an accountant; and Alex (Ewan McGregor), a journalist -- are looking for someone to move into the vacant fourth bedroom of their suite. After interviewing an interesting range of applicants, they settle on Hugo (Keith Allen), whose outlook on life seems a good match for their own. And his willingness to pay up front with cold cash doesn't hurt.

However, Hugo's time with the trio is destined to be short. One day, he moves in; the next, he's dead, apparently of a drug overdose. Left behind in his room are his corpse, evidence of his addiction, and a suitcase full of money. This presents a dilemma for the flatmates: call the cops or dump the body and keep the cash. Because of the nature of the film, it's not hard to guess which they choose. So, while two thugs searching for Hugo begin leaving a trail of dead bodies, Juliette, David, and Alex take Hugo's remains out to the woods where they mutilate the corpse beyond recognition and bury it in a shallow grave.

There aren't any real, three-dimensional characters in Shallow Grave, but the stock types are played with such ability by Fox (the aloof female), Eccleston (the reclusive nerd), and McGregor (the wisecracking party boy), that it doesn't matter. Director Danny Boyle, a veteran of British TV (his work on Inspector Morse has been seen on this side of the Atlantic), imbues Shallow Grave with a style that at times seems a little too slick.

In fact, a weakness of this film is that it occasionally tries to be too clever (bordering on smug). Several of the apparently "shocking" plot twists aren't all that surprising, but Boyle treats each new turn of John Hodge's script as if it was the most unexpected possibility. This objection is in the nature of a minor quibble, however, since it does little to detract from the viewer's overall satisfaction. Taken as a whole, Shallow Grave is a reasonably enjoyable (for those captivated by this sort of thing) black comedy/noir thriller that justifies at least a portion of the praise being heaped upon it from overseas.

Shallow Grave (United Kingdom, 1994)

Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor, Keith Allen, Ken Stott
Screenplay: John Hodge
Cinematography: Brian Tufano
Music: Simon Boswell
U.S. Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1