The United Kingdom
Off a nondescript street in an equally nondescript neighborhood of Edinburgh stands an unassuming brownstone flat harboring three particularly nasty tenets. The first, David, is a mousy-looking chartered accountant sporting a Clark Kent combover and a pair of garish brown glasses. The second, Juliet, is a stern, no-nonsense doctor who seems to have stolen her hairdo and demeanor from a 1980s female news anchor. And finally, the third is Alex, a grating, immature, irresponsible reporter with a massive ego outsized only by his gargantuan mouth. The three would have probably hated each other if not for one common interest: causing misery in other human beings. When they aren’t working or keeping their split-pea soup green and Tweety Bird yellow furniture and decor immaculately clean, the three emotionally and psychologically abuse the unfortunate souls who answer their add for a fourth tenet.
Juliet, Alex, and David immediately after humiliating another potential flatmate.
But soon they run out of awkward Gingers, Goths, and Geeks to harass. So they finally accept a clean-cut, well dressed man named Hugo as their fourth tenet. Everything seems fine...at least until the next day when they discover him completely naked, sprawled out over his bed, and stone-cold dead from a drug overdose. And next to their freshly deceased flatmate they find a suitcase stuffed to the brim with more money than they had ever laid eyes on.
Such is the situation in which the main characters of Danny Boyle’s directorial debut Shallow Grave find themselves. Two years before he would stun the world with Trainspotting (1996), a true cinematic triumph that would later be named one of the Top Ten Greatest British Films of All Time by the British Film Institute, Boyle released this remarkable, yet little remembered, title. Part crime thriller, part black comedy, Shallow Grave is a magnificent synthesis of style, mood, and storytelling.
The idea of a group of friends accidentally discovering a suitcase full of somebody else’s money was already an overused stereotype before Boyle began this film. But Boyle introduces two distinct variations for this scenario which set it apart from other stories of its kind. First, usually when a group of people find a “suitcase full of money” they initially want to do the right thing but are dissuaded by a corrupt member of their party. In Shallow Grave, Boyle asks the question of what would happen if the people who found it were already out-right, unapologetic bastards. It doesn’t take long for the three to decide to keep the money and not inform the authorities about Hugo’s death. So they almost immediately set out on the obligatory spending sprees that accompany such tales.
Well, to be more specific, Juliet and Alex start to throw money around like crazy. David, on the other hand, refrains from and even rebukes their frivolous behavior, wisely (and correctly) assuming that the money didn’t belong to Hugo. But there is a greater motivation for David’s cautious behavior. Quite simply, he begins to grow a conscience. Usually it’s the other way around in these stories: a harming individual or influence eventually corrupts the otherwise decent members of the group who find the money, eventually turning them against each other. The reason for David’s sudden development has to do with Boyle’s second variation on this story: the presence of an unwanted body.
I mean, it IS kinda hard to miss.
Naturally Hugo has to disappear in order for them to keep the money. But the question quickly becomes how will they do it. The disposal of bodies has long been one of the most difficult problems for the average movie character. Some hide them under floorboards, some in swamps, and some even feed them to pigs! But David, Juliet, and Alex fancy themselves smarter than the average criminal and decide that the best thing to do is to saw off his hands and feet, burn them, bash his face with a hammer beyond recognition, destroy his teeth, and bury what’s left in the woods. Unfortunately, after drawing straws, it is up for David to do the butchering. It is at this point that the film takes on a completely different tone.
David doing the dirty deed.
Up until then, the entire film had reveled in the techniques that would come to define Boyle’s direction in the coming decades: highly kinetic editing, a break-neck speed, and ecstatically energetic acting. But after David’s midnight meat run, the mood and atmosphere of the film shift. David slowly begins to lose his mind, locking himself in their attic to protect the money. A pair of gangsters hot on the trail of the money begin to interrogate and dispatch people connected with the money’s disappearance in increasingly shocking and brutal manners. Juliet begins to realize that they might be in trouble and starts to move about as if in a daze. And Alex, whereas before he was just an asshole, begins to sink into illusions of grandeur wherein he is a genius and completely untouchable by both the law and whoever might be wanting the money back.
Of course, Alex’s delusions are violently ended when the two gangsters somehow track the money to their flat and attack them. Miraculously, David manages to dispatch both of them when they try to access the attic. Afterwards, they have two more dead bodies to dispose of. But they have bigger problems. David’s paranoia has driven him insane, Juliet is so terrified that she buys plane tickets to Brazil, and Alex’s arrogant bravado has come crashing down, leaving him a frightened fraction of the man he once was. To their combined horror, things get even worse when the police manage to discover all three bodies and come to their flat asking suspicious questions. Perhaps inevitably it leads to an unfortunate incident in their flat involving a particularly large kitchen knife...
Though its central story may be too familiar for some, Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave is nonetheless an astonishingly powerful thriller. Most films are unable to survive a mood shift as severe and pronounced as the one central to Shallow Grave. But where other films choke, Shallow Grave succeeds with a ferocious intensity. Many fresh filmmakers make the mistake of sacrificing story for style. But with this film Boyle proved himself not only as a master stylist, but as a supreme storyteller as well. Truly, it was the dawn of one of Britain’s greatest and most talented modern filmmakers.